Expectations overturned in a triumph of the old 

I'm interested in new, creative theater more than rehashed favorites, so a challenging new play by an unfamiliar, award-winning playwright sounded exciting. Geva's production in a stop-and-stare setting stars an actor I've admired here before. But it's all disappointing.

Race of the Ark Tattoo by W. David Hancock pretends to be a flea market sale. Stripped of its stage trappings, the Nextstage is filled with a bizarre collection of junk that one Mr. Phinney Jr. encourages us to walk through and examine, maybe to buy something. After we're seated, actor Brian O'Connor, now playing Foster, Phinney's foster child, tells us about that peculiar enthusiast who collected and sold the junk. He walks among the audience, carrying a topless toy van containing little numbered oddities from which he asks us to choose one piece. That's the gimmick: Audience members will determine the order of the "lectures" that explain the background stories of the things they pick out.

Along the way, Foster also cheerfully tells us about his terrible life: how, but not why, his father abandoned him; how he was mistreated, lost his wife, and other miseries.

The title refers to a tribe of marooned Vikings --- one of the many symbolic images from Foster's stories. He consults a scrapbook of "story cards" that are numbered to correspond to the numbered pieces of junk. His resulting dialogue is full of wry, often witty, and even poetic elements. But, despite his neutral tone and all the deadpan humor, the tales are mostly ugly or depressing.

Mr. Phinney told him that larva are implanted into the brain to eat intrusive matter, also that if one leaves the windows open at night the soul of the house escapes and by morning it is a vacant lot. Foster's own stories include one about Claire, a classmate who adopted a stray cat, which mischievous schoolmates skinned and hung in her locker wrapped in pages from a dirty magazine.

There is a kind of thematic throughline about adoption and care of foster children and the awful things we can remember about people whom we nonetheless care for. But it comes out amorphous and unpleasant. And in the opening performance, whether from Sean Daniels' direction or O'Connor's lapses, there were inexplicable long pauses throughout.

Credit Ethan Sinnott with an unforgettable set design and O'Connor for enough personal charm to keep the proceedings relatively cheerful. But this very short play was too long for me.

Great Expectations by Robert Johanson brings Charles Dickens' rambling novel to the stage with surprisingly vivid understanding. And in an evident labor of love, John Haldoupis directs and designs it to play briskly and movingly.

The Blackfriars production is the farewell performance of octogenarian Elaine Good, a highly regarded Rochester actor who is moving to be nearer family. In the iconic role of Miss Havisham, the rich old spinster we see in her decaying wedding dress among the remains of her aborted wedding banquet, Ms. Good is ideally cast and gives an unforgettable performance.

But Miss Havisham is no more the center of the novel than the equally boldly drawn character of Abel Magwitch, a huge, menacing convict who also affects the life of Pip, the character with the mysterious "great expectations." Unrecognizable in the getup and accent of Magwitch, Blackfriars regular Ken Klamm is also memorable and perfectly cast.

The most difficult role, however, is Pip, who undergoes the most changes in situation and stature and also narrates. Benjamin C. Wilson rises to the role's challenges admirably. His delivery of Pip's emotionally inspired final speech clearly moved the opening night audience.

Haldoupis gathered an entirely excellent large cast for this production. Three young boys --- Jeremy Ehlinger as Young Pip, J. Taylor Monfort-Eaton as the Pale Young Man, and Mitchell Phillip Canfield as both the tailor's boy and later Joe's son --- are first rate. Ehlinger, like Marguerite Frarey as young Estella, is remarkable in an extended, significant role. And Monfort-Eaton is priceless in his deadpan routine and slapstick falls.

David Jason Kyle's lower-class English accent is occasionally hard to understand, but his manly Blacksmith, Pip's "friend for life," is heartbreakingly affecting. Dina Rath makes the cold Estella touching and convincingly desirable. Vicki Casarett's strong Mrs. Joe, Pip's older sister, becomes scene-stealing after a disabling injury. H. Darrell Lance makes kindly law clerk Wemmick so absorbing that Wemmick and David F. Runzo's lordly Jaggers deserve a play of their own. And James Caito transforms the subordinate role of Pip's London roommate Herbert Pocket into a memorably bright, likable person. And in additional roles the large cast do themselves proud, as do the designers and many other backstage artists.

Haldoupis' framework and panels covered with print from the novel and a half-circle of Roman numerals might seem a pretentious setting. But cleverly lit by Nic Minetor and enhanced by Ron Heerkens Jr.'s sound and projection designs, it moves the action all over with economy and absolute clarity. The painted panels are moved around to change settings, and projections on the see-through curtain and suggestive set pieces show us everything from Miss Havisham's decayed mansion to a fight between small boats at sea.

Race of the Ark Tattoo plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 5 and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 20 at Geva's Nextstage, 75 Woodbury Boulevard. $12.50 to $25. 232-4382, www.gevatheatre.org

Great Expectations plays Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. through March 26 at Blackfriars Theatre, 28 Lawn Street, $20 to $22. 454-1260, www.blackfriars.org

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