“Nicholas Nickleby”: a dark, vivid portrayal of action against injustice

Photo courtesy Calvin Theater Company.
Photo courtesy Calvin Theater Company.

The Calvin Theatre Company’s (CTC) spring play, “Nicholas Nickleby,” is an intriguing visual and mental work of art, and according to 2016 Calvin grad and assistant director Emily Wetzel, “like many works of Charles Dickens, [“Nicholas Nickleby”] addresses the social injustices and oppression of life in Victorian England. This particular adaptation of the novel places great weight on those issues and asks the audience to consider the level to which one’s actions affect those around them. In the face of abuse and discrimination, how do we choose to act?”

The play is filled with interesting encounters and humorous characters, and it broaches sensitive topics with artfulness and depth. Sophomore Joshua Ashkinazi plays Newman Noggs in the show, who, as he puts it, is “the fourth-wall-breaking character who is recounting the tragic events surrounding the Nickleby family.”

The play is beautifully realized with the juxtaposition of cold-stone walls and vivid-colored lights. Transitions in the show are set to music by the likes of Philip Glass and Krzysztof Penderecki. The show on a whole is a distinct experience.

“So much thought and design went into this play, which helped to bolster our enthusiasm for the show,” Ashkinazi said. “The true heart of play comes from expressionist art, and the imposingly jarring etchings of 18th century artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, alongside other expressionist forms.”

Ashkinazi added that “the play holds many themes, such as love, violence, friendship and wealth, making it a complete package.”

Artist collaboration plays a significant role in CTC’s approach. The CTC community is a tight group, and the actors and crew must be willing to lean on each other for support on and off the stage.

Lexi Viegas, a first-year student with a minor in theater, finds the act of collaboration as one of the most important elements of her experience:

“Firstly, teamwork is the foundation of any show, especially a show of this scale and magnitude. Everyone from crew to cast has a vital role to play and the excellence in which they execute their role directly affects the team.”

A theater veteran since the age of six, Viegas found particular poignancy in the play because she can relate personally to the main characters:

“I can relate to the storyline of Nicholas Nickleby because, like Nicholas and Kate, I also lost my father at a young age. The uncertainty that comes along with this life-altering event was something I identified with.”

She also found unique challenges in her roles this season and found director Michael Page’s insight helpful in her search for her character’s’ portrayal:

“I play Mrs. Nickleby and Charles Cheeryble. In the early rehearsals for this production, we did a lot of character development work. I found this to be especially challenging having never played a male role before…[Michael Page’s] guided character development was some of the best I have ever participated in! Most of the actors in this show are double-cast, playing drastically different characters such as a teenaged girl and an elderly man.”

According to the actors, storytelling and emotion go hand-in-hand. The characters are complex and sometimes play unclear roles in the plot — they can’t be delineated as good or bad, rather they exist in shades of gray. Ashkinazi values his experiences acting because they allow him “a chance to really feel emotions.”

“So often in life we tend to experience emotion spontaneously, which, of course, there is nothing wrong with that, however people never truly get a chance to think intentionally about feeling that emotion,” Ahskinazi said. When you figure out what drives certain feelings, what makes them come to life in your face, then you are left with something incredibly meaningful.”

Wetzel added, “Theater is live storytelling, and storytelling is such an important part of how we as humans connect with our world and with each other. To look into another person’s life and story, whether it be fictional or nonfictional, is to embrace and celebrate what it means to be alive and active in the world.”

Viegas’ outlook on acting expresses the same sentiments:

“I love acting in general because it is an opportunity to study people, who may be very different from me, in an intimate way. … Art in general is God’s way for us to express ourselves creatively. Theatre specifically is an emotional way for the actors, as well as the audience, to connect to part of themselves, others, and the world around them. As a campus made up of stewards of God’s kingdom, it is our responsibility to maintain this particular lens through which to view God’s greatest creation, man, as well as use our gifts and talents to glorify him.”

Nicholas Nickleby will be showing this Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Gezon Auditorium.

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