By Barbara Vitello
Jamil Khoury knows a good proposal when he hears one. And Khoury, co-founder and artistic director of Silk Road Rising in Chicago, heard what he believed was a winning pitch from fellow theater artist Nick Sandys.
Sandys, artistic director of Chicago's Remy Bumppo Theatre and an artistic associate with Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre, proposed the companies collaborate on a production of "Great Expectations," adapted by Tanika Gupta from Charles Dickens' novel about an impoverished young man determined to improve his social standing.
What: A joint U.S. premiere by Remy Bumppo Theatre and Silk Road Rising
When: Previews through Friday, May 19. Opens Saturday, May 20. Shows at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday through July 2.
Where: The Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St., Chicago, (312) 857-1234, ext. 201, or
Gupta, a British playwright of Bengali origin, re-imagined Dickens' 19th-century masterwork in Calcutta, India, during the time of the British Raj.
"We were not familiar with the adaptation … but upon reading it we were sold," said Khoury, a Mount Prospect native.
Relocating the novel to India in the mid-1800s sounded like a fascinating way to tell the story, Khoury said.
"We erect a lot of barriers and walls," he said. "On many levels, this is about tearing them down."
The production draws upon each company's strengths: Silk Road's expertise at telling stories rooted in Asian, Middle Eastern and South Asian culture, and Remy Bumppo's skill at producing classical works from the Western theatrical canon.
But Khoury makes clear theirs is not an "East meets West" approach to storytelling. From day one, says Khoury, Silk Road rejected as condescending any attempt to exoticize "The East."
"We don't do tourism theater," Khoury said. "We're experiencing this story through the lives of Indian characters. It's very much on their turf."
Although inspired by a classical piece of literature, the tale of a young man realizing that character and compassion not social class are the true measure of a gentleman is a story that resonates across cultures, Khoury said.
"I want people to see the universality in what Dickens wrote and how lovingly and passionately Gupta honors his story while telling the story of her own heritage," he said.
Sandys, who is British, co-directs the U.S. premiere with Silk Road artistic associate Lavina Jadhwani, who is of Indian heritage.
"On a piece like this, having a co-director has been a huge blessing," said Jadhwani, referring to the play's three-hour running time. "Sometimes directing can feel lonely. It's great to have somebody to bounce ideas off of."
Anand Bhatt, of Naperville, plays Pip, the central character in the coming-of-age tale.
Where Dickens' novel and Gupta's play differ is in the characters' ethnicities, Bhatt said.
"Otherwise the story is very similar to Charles Dickens'," he said. "It follows the same path, the same arc, the same ending. Except it's adapted by someone who sees the world in different colors."
Pairing Indian protagonist Pip with his African benefactor Magwitch makes a powerful statement about the nature of social and economic advancement, Jadhwani said.
"One man of color raising up another man of color is exciting to see now," she said.
Like Khoury, Bhatt says the story's power rests with its universality.
"We all have the same needs, the same requirements for living," he said. "We all want to be happy.
"At the end of the day, we're all human beings."