Ryerson embraces the classics with Martin Chuzzlewit

At first glance, it’s understandable why you might be scared to see Ryerson’s third-year theatre class production of Martin Chuzzlewit. The story comes from Victorian mastermind Charles Dickens. It’s a period piece, meaning hoop skirts, top hats and fast-tongued banter that can fly over your head. It’s a whopping three-hours long– an even more alarming feat to take in after realizing the seats you’ll be tucked into are hard, plastic and back-breaking.

But once you’re settled in, there are countless more reasons to stay and enjoy the fun.

Adapted for the stage by playwright/director Michael Hollingsworth, it’s a love story between a young man, Martin Chuzzlewit Jr. and a young woman, Mary Graham. It’s a story about greedy, selfish and slightly insane relatives, something we can all agree to understand to some extent. But mostly it’s a story about realizing the worth of love over money, a concept Martin Chuzzlewit Sr. comes to acknowledge by the play’s end. There’s a couple songs, some dance numbers, and a great amount of dark comedy well-delivered by pretty much every actor that graces the small stage at some point.

Specifically for The Classics production, the traditional 1237-seat Ryerson theatre is transformed into an intimate 110-seated stage setting, getting viewers up-close and personal with the actors. Often times you’d think it was the person to your left hocking the loudest loogie you’ve ever heard, when it was simply an actor slipping onto the stage as part of their performance.

The environment also allows spectators to truly take in some of the play’s aesthetic standouts, such as the almost mind-blowing make up effects done to transform early 20-year-olds into old men and women with precision.  It was almost hard to believe third-year student Stephen Lotimer was underneath the Martin Sr. getup as he hobbled and coughed his way around the stage, or Mitchell Janiak, who we’d later see hammer his way through a hoedown as the Spoonman in a backwoods band, was earlier underneath the lines and wrinkles of Anthony Chuzzlewit.

Much of the fun of the performances simply came from the constant changes in roles. The second act saw a few main character changes, such as the role of Martin Jr. switching from Dylan Evans to Kaleb Horn. Both commanded the stage in different ways while bringing something new to the character, with Horn portraying a more vulnerable and worn Chuzzlewit after three hours worth of turmoil.

Even some of the brief role changes added to the surprising abundance of comedy within the production. In one of the most fun scenes of the play, Martin Jr. and companion Mark (Kevin Forster) are forced into entertaining the hillbilly citizens of a town in the United States in which the duo travel to, where each of the actors has quickly transformed into white-bearded, toothless county bumpkins that yell, scream, fawn and overall showcase the type of talent on hand within the third year class. A special shout out is deserved for the hillbilly band of Janiak, James Karfilis and their violin player, who provided subtle but perfect body language to amplify the absurdity of the situation.

As it was opening night, there were naturally a few hiccups that will be undoubtedly ironed, or in the case of a few noticeably dusty garments, cleaned out throughout the play’s six-day run. And none of the subtle musical cue errors or a small line flub took anything away from the audience’s overall immersement into the production.

Director Cynthia Asphberger has managed to lead the third-year students in total transformation back to the Victorian era, making us laugh, feel for and understand Martin Chuzzlewit and his dastardly family. If this is what they can pull together for third year, we’re in for quite a production from the class next year.

The Classics: Martin Chuzzlewit is on from Feb. 7-13 at 8 p.m. ET.