True story: Charles Dickens, having survived a train crash that killed many others, used his own hat to bring water to struggling survivors.
Born from such a germ of reality, and touched by the souls of Dickens’ many novels and characters, playwright Michael Hollinger’s Mr. Dickens’ Hat is a slightly unpolished gem of a show that tries to tell an original Dickensian story in only 90 minutes. That it succeeds sometimes and doesn’t quite at others is a reminder of the utter complexity of Dickens’ stories.
Director David Catlin has assembled a strong group of performers, most of whom play multiple characters, to bring this tale to life. (Well, all of them do if you count voicing a dog and a parrot as “characters.”) Catlin and his ensemble make the most of designer William Boles’ busy, backstage-like set, at times giving this a “let’s put on a show” vibe even as they ground the production with a series of impressive hats. (Credit Sully Ratke, costume designer, with making or finding all of these.) As to the titular chapeau, it is both a bit of a MacGuffin and a prized possession. Given a place of honor high above all of the other hats in the shop in which this all takes place, Dickens’ hat becomes the object of a thief’s pursuit, which becomes the center of a plot that is more designed to present to us characters whose lives, in typically Dickensian ways, interweave with each other.
The main character (played by the one actor who remains in a single role throughout, Cordelia Dewdley—which is a wonderfully Dickensian name itself) is Kit, a teenage girl forced to quit school and work in the hat shop/millinery run by Mr. Garbleton (Mark David Kaplan) and his bride-to-be Mrs. Prattle (Kasey Foster) when her father is jailed for nonpayment of debts. A resourceful and intelligent girl, she works diligently, counting the days until she has earned enough to free him. In her free time, what there is of it, she reads penny dreadfuls…until Mr. Garbleton gives her a copy of the collected works of Charles Dickens, which she takes up excitedly, sometimes reading to Garbleton’s brighter-than-he-seems son Ned (Ruchir Khazanchi).
In the most significant subplots, the perfectly named Fleece (an intimidating Nick Sandys) and his not-brighter-than-he-seems cohort Gnat (Kaplan again) plan to steal the hat, while a socialite (Christine Bunuan) and the groom-to-be find themselves opening their hatboxes (one at his wedding and the other at a reception for the Queen) to discover they have mixed them up. There is also a sweet subplot involving Kit spending her nights in the jail with her father (Sandys, in ingratiating mode) and another involving a constable (Bunuan, again showing major comic chops) who desperately wants to happen upon a felony in progress.
All of these performers also narrate the story and at times sing a cappella songs (also written by Hollinger) that range from carols (this is a holiday tale even though no one ever mentions Christmas) to a dark, forbidding ode (brilliantly staged) to what lies buried in the mirk at the bottom of the Thames. Meanwhile, Catlin has them seamlessly moving in and out of their various characters and whirling around the set like dervishes, especially in a climactic chase scene that seemingly uses every square foot of the stage. (He’s a perfect director for this production.)
With such a dramatic, multi-character story to tell, though, especially in such a short play, it is no surprise that some elements feel undercooked. The switched-hat subplot, for instance, resolves entirely off-stage, as does the constable’s role in catching the thieves. The relationship between Kit and Ned, which should be a powerful and heartfelt bonding, is left hanging, and her sweet connection to her father is similarly lacking. Hollinger’s sense of Dickensian potting is excellent, but he needs to take another look at the ways his characters do and do not resolve their internal conflicts. Even the central marriage feels a bit forced: at first, Foster’s Mrs. Prattle seems partly an icy termagant (bossing her fiancé around and treating his son as if he doesn’t exist) and partly a woman sincerely in love; it would have been nice to allow Foster to resolve that potential clash.
Overall, then, Hollinger’s play is a kind of Dickens light. I don’t often wish plays were longer, but this one could have used it.
Mr. Dickens’ Hat is playing at Northlight Theatre until Jan 2.