By Anna DeNoia
Mr. Dickens’ Hat is absolutely filled to the brim with ambition. With a clever cast under the direction of Chicago favorite David Catlin and dynamic, interactive storytelling built into its design, this play couldn’t ask for more from this, its world premiere production. Despite the clear talent and vision from its team, however, when it comes to story and structure, Mr. Dickens’ Hat suffers from being a bit too much.
To give a quick synopsis of this play, which is only ninety minutes long, is deceptively difficult. There’s Kit, a young girl full of that classic theatrical street urchin spunk, working to free her father from debtors’ prison. There’s the hat shop in which she works and the boy there to whom she reads. There’s the son of the shop owner whose engagement becomes its own B-plot. (C-plot?) Throw in a pair of hat thieves keen on swiping an old Dickens’ relic and a vast ensemble of kooky side characters (oh, and a parrot), and you’re on your way! Where to, exactly? Hard to say.
The cast of six works mightily, multiplying themselves to fill the shoes of around five different characters each— some less, some more. With so many characters, locations and plotlines rotating so quickly, things get muddy. Relationships become difficult to discern as the actors are perpetually switching characters. Investing in any one of these characters is a challenge due to the play’s breakneck pace, constantly jumping from one place or problem or plotline to another, never spending more than a few minutes in any particular mood or moment. When we do get a chance to spend some time with these characters, we are often bogged down by explanation rather than action. Even Nick Sandys’ standout performance as the crooked villain— his coarse charm effortless and addicting— couldn’t be fully enjoyed until the show’s later moments, as his first few appearances were monopolized by mountains of exposition.
The play jerks rapidly from sentimental to silly to somber— promising ingredients, but, unfortunately, the bake here is not quite even. It’s difficult to relax into the slapstick sequences for fear of whiplash, as, a minute later, the audience could very well be thrown into a funeral march. Audience members grasping for a throughline will be granted many pointed moments of foreshadowing– information that provides clarity only after it’s needed—as well as the frequent repetition of quite a few cute but kitschy Christmas card colloquialisms such as “Beneath our hats, we are all the same.” Simple, sweet, and shiny, sure, but this thesis statement loses luster by its third repetition. And fourth. And quite possibly fifth.
While the story and structure of Mr. Dicken’s Hat may not be incredibly cohesive, the same cannot be said of its cast. These actors work remarkably well together, joyful teammates excited to invite us along for the ride, and they earn many genuine laughs– especially Mark David Kaplan as the villain’s goofy, hapless sidekick. David Catlin’s direction is full of his characteristic movement sequences and creative stage pictures, always put forth with such specific intention and narrative care— an enormous aid to these often muddled storylines.
The motion Catlan captures is supported by William Boles’ scenic design, with hanging rope and scaffolding giving the actors ample space to spin and crawl and climb. Sully Ratke’s costumes are a similar success, beginning as street clothes and evolving back in time with layered additions (an apron, a skirt, a bow, etc) as the play goes on. In a visually thrilling opening sequence, the cast begins to assemble their costumes and uncover their set from beneath piles of dusty boxes— thrilling, but not quite enough to distract from the enormity of the exposition dump that accompanies it. No one need fear spoilers from the earlier synopsis, as nearly all of that information is relayed within the play’s first ten minutes.
What does it all amount to? All in all, it evens out into an amusing, harmless holiday romp. It’s awfully exciting to see this kind of support thrown behind a new work— Mr. Dickens’ Hat certainly has exponential potential charm and a great chance to grow in the future. Presently, despite some structural woes, it is still an indubitable delight to watch so many Chicago heavy hitters — cast, designers, and production team alike — do what they do best— tell us a story.
Mr. Dickens’ Hat runs through January 2nd, 2022, Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL. For tickets or more information, please call (847) 673-6300 or visit northlight.org.
COVID-19 protocol requires masks and proof of vaccination or a negative test upon arrival.
Photos by Michael Brosilow.