Worden brings Charles Dickens stories to life

VERGENNES — “The Very Dickens,” a theatrical production that will be staged at the Vergennes Opera House this weekend, has few props, one actor and no set. Over the course of two hours, however, members of the audience meet some 20 characters and participate in a sing-along.
The show — written by Gaen Murphree and performed by Neil Worden — has changed significantly from its original “workshopping” run at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury last  June, the two Middlebury residents said. Over the course of many performances, they have experimented with stories from a long list of Charles Dickens novels. But for this series of shows they’ve settled on two stories interspersed with commentary from Dickens himself (all played by Worden).
Though Murphree wrote all of Dickens’s dialog and adapted his stories for a modern audience, she based the writing on years of research. By now, she and Worden have read nearly everything that’s available by and about Charles Dickens.
Murphree even traveled to the New York Public Library, which she said has one of the world’s largest collections of Dickens manuscripts, to read the British author’s own notes on his books.
“We read for months,” Worden said.
The show mimics the performances Dickens did of his own works, and Murphree researched Dickens’s stage performances to develop an interpretation of the prolific writer’s character. To collect a detailed picture of his stage presence, she didn’t have to look far.
“Because Dickens was so rock star popular, people wrote books describing every last gesture,” said Murphree.
In the end, though, the detailed descriptions she wrote went out the window once it hit the stage.
“It’s not a historical piece,” she said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”
The stories, too, are interpretations — Murphree said she has adapted them from the printed works, further building and developing some of the less prominent characters.
But that, said Murphree, is what Dickens himself would have done.
“What’s interesting about what Dickens did when he adapted it (for the stage) is that he changed things in the plot,” said Murphree. “I continued in that spirit of adaptation, because I have a different audience.”
As they continued to develop the show, Murphree took cues from Worden as well.
“There were these characters I would read, and I could feel that they just came from me,” said Worden.
One was the tale of a fisherman from “David Copperfield” named Mr. Peggoty, “a tragic tale of innocence betrayed,” according to the show’s press release. That has become the show’s mainstay, an hour-long segment of the two-hour show.
“The minute I picked him up, I understood the world he was coming from,” said Worden.
Peggoty’s story became the longer piece of the show, and Murphree said one of the challenges was building up the character of Peggoty’s niece, Emily. Though Emily plays a central role in the story, she has very few lines.
“Women are not his deal,” Worden said of Dickens.
In her research, Murphree turned up a letter from Emily that was edited out of the final version of “David Copperfield,” which added some more depth to Dickens’s.
“I’ve tried to shape the story in a way that appeals to us. She’s just a wild one,” said Murphree.
The second act of the show is “Fanny Squeers’s Tea Party,” a short, comical piece from “Nicholas Nickleby” — “a farcical romp through the turns and twists of unrequited love.”
In that piece, Worden must switch between four people in succession as the homely and bumbling Fanny tries to woo the clueless Nicholas Nickleby. In these scenes, he said, physical and vocal cues become key in distinguishing the characters.
Fanny’s story, said Murphree, appeals strongly to high school students.
“They automatically get it,” she said, “because everyone knows what it’s like to feel awkward and homely and really have the hots for some gorgeous guy.”
The two have staged productions at Lost Nation Theater, the Hardwick Town House, Vergennes Union High School, the Town Hall Theater, and, this weekend, the Vergennes Opera House.
Their performances have brought in enthusiastic audiences, and late last year, Murphree was also awarded a Vermont Community Foundation Arts Endowment Fund grant of $1,000 to support the development of the play. And next year, they plan on attending conferences to shop the play around to a national audience.
Both in Hardwick last week and at the Vergennes Opera House this weekend, the show also featured concertina player Colin Flood. When Murphree discovered that Flood was also a trained singer, she added an audience sing-along of the song “Home Sweet Home” — one of Dickens’s favorite songs — to the pre-show entertainment.
She said this helps to build the mood for the audience.
“There’s a ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ aspect to our show,” said Murphree. “We kind of want people to pretend they’re there.”
The music also helps the audience to relax into what is can be an unexpected sensory experience.
“We’re such a visual culture, and this is a very oral piece,” said Worden. “In this, people have to really use their imagination.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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