Mr. dickens hat

Nick Sandys and Cordelia Dewdney in Northlight Theatre's "Mr. Dickens' Hat."

The art of theatrical storytelling is on ample display in the world premiere of “Mr. Dickens' Hat” at Northlight Theatre.

Playwright Michael Hollinger takes a minor incident from the life of author Charles Dickens and weaves it into an intricate “play with music,” and director David Catlin and his cast of six bring it to life using a hatful of techniques that suffuse the tale with a Victorian feel and a holiday-worthy moral or two (though the holiday isn't specified).

The hat in question is the signature opera hat — a kind of collapsible top hat — that Dickens once used to bring water to the victims of a train wreck he was in. The 90-minute play gets underway with the actors filtering onto William Boles' set full of boxes, tarps, scaffolding and other paraphernalia, then transforming it into a hat shop by moving things around and uncovering them. The opera hat is put in a place of honor high up on a pole. The actors gradually shed their street clothes for period costumes by Sully Ratke, whose fancifully decorated hats are a highlight. Jason Lynch's lighting adds to the atmospheric feel as the action shifts from the shop to the shadowy Dickensian streets and beyond.

Hollinger's script, originally written and workshopped in 2016 and intended for production in late 2020, sets several plots in motion and introduces us to more than two-dozen characters, with the half-dozen performers playing all the roles, including voicing a dog and a parrot. At the center is Kit (Cordelia Dewdney), a plucky young girl working in the hat shop to pay off her father's debt and free him from prison.

The shop, as we're told by the actors, who also narrate, is actually the combined premises of Mr. Garbleton (Mark David Kaplan) and milliner Mrs. Prattle (Kasey Foster), who tore down the wall between them and, both widowed, are now about to get married. Mr. Garbleton's son, Ned (Ruchir Khazanchi), works in the shop and, although not as dumb as he seems, is such a source of embarrassment to Mrs. Prattle that he hasn't been invited to the wedding. So he turns to Kit for comfort and support.

The potential source of the greatest conflict is a plan to steal Dickens' hat hatched by Fleece (Nick Sandys), the debtors' prison warder who wants the money for a better life, with the help of his sidekick Gnat (Kaplan). Other threads include the accidental switch of a fancy hat made for the haughty Lady Plume (Christine Bunuan) to wear at a reception for the queen and the top hat Mrs. Prattle has made as a surprise for her husband-to-be. Patrolling the streets is the bumbling policeman Witslow (Bunuan), sent on silly chases as often as not.

Anyone who is familiar with Catlin's directorial work at Lookingglass Theatre Company will recognize the style here. It's very physical, occasionally daringly so, as when Fleece chases Kit on the railroad trellis she has to cross to get from the shop to see her Father (also Sandys) in prison. The narration not only breaks down the fourth wall, it also leaps across time, pointing out gaps between the mention of something and the year in the future it was actually invented.

The main problem is that most of the lines of action aren't fully developed or brought to a satisfying conclusion. Kit does foil Fleece's thievery, but we're told rather than shown most of the outcome. The discovery of the switched hats takes place mostly offstage, with only a snippet about Lady Plume starting a new fashion trend and nothing about Mr. Garbleton's unlikely chapeau. Ned seems to be a superfluous character altogether.

The amount of music also is disappointing. There should be more of it, especially in the first half, because what there is in the second half — especially the Victorian-sounding carols written by Hollinger — is lovely. The actors make the songs almost ethereal, with the help of music director Chuck Larkin and sound designer Andre Pluess.

Despite some overacting, most of the performances are on point. Dewdney's Kit is thoroughly engaging, and it's fun to see Sandys play the villain Fleece one minute and put-upon Father the next.

What's missing from “Mr. Dickens' Hat” is a fully realized tale with a meaningful dramatic arc. Perhaps more research would yield useful information about the hat itself and how he got it, which could be added to the opening. And maybe the way he used it to relieve the suffering of others could be connected to the play's two messages: Beneath our hats we are all the same, and there's plenty for everyone when everyone shares.

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