nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 31, 2007
[Editor's Note: For a synopsis of Oliver Twist, click here.]
How is it possible to keep an audience rapt and guessing in a story as familiar as Oliver Twist? Start, as adaptor and director Neil Bartlett has done, by being true to the 19th century language of Charles Dickens and always, always keep in mind that you are there to stir, if not actually provoke, your audience into seeing the tale with new eyes. Bartlett embraces this concept with ferocity, and taps a deep well of imaginative staging that surprises, disturbs, and amuses, making this well-known story so fresh as to keep his public guessing and thoroughly entertained. It is tempting to lay all the kudos at his feet. But the stellar cast makes this impossible.
The tone of this Twist alternates between serious social commentary and hilarious melodrama. At the start, the characters, dressed in black, huddle like Lego pieces attached at the limbs, as they stare at the audience. The mood is dark and claustrophobic, and the long, unsettling silence makes it feel as if something is expected of us. But, then the narration begins, and suddenly the characters part, oozing like vapor into the ether, opening the stage for a broader view of poverty in 19th century London.
Dialogue intersects with the narration, and familiar lines, such as Oliver's "Please, Sir, I want some more," arrive on cue. Bartlett leaps into one of his raucous and imaginative staging sequences that combine pantomime, tableau, and dance, displaying the talent of a dedicated ensemble. Their timing is so precise as to be astonishing; their melodrama teeters between farce and satire but is never far from drama; and they show remarkable synchronized and stylized movements under the expert tutelage of Struan Leslie. The use of early 19th century music hall numbers, adapted by Simon Deacon, adds yet another element, with characters emerging from shadowy depths playing a violin, a serpentine, and a hurdy gurdy. The cast sings, but not always in unison with the instruments. At times, the characters speak like a Greek chorus, build, and end up singing a cappella. With all the visuals and aurals at near capacity, Bartlett keeps the tale tight. He notes in the program that his story has "a single over-riding desire: to find a family for its orphan hero." His focus is unwavering. Each group Oliver falls in with forms that family.
Bartlett shows the qualities that Dickens originally intended for his characters, but Bartlett's thumbprint is clear. The excellent Carson Elrod plays both the puritanical-looking narrator John Dawkins and an agile, rubbery Artful Dodger. Convincing as the frightening and abusive Bill Sykes, Gregory Derelian also cross-dresses as Mrs. Sowerberry to humorous effect. Ned Eisenberg uses small gestures to commanding effect as Fagin. He sets the sun with a wave of an arm and puts the boys to bed with a click of his fingers. His decline into madness is stunning. Karen MacDonald displays the cruelty of Mrs. Bumble without apology, flicking her whip and demurely touching her hair with equal commitment. Remo Airaldi gains huge sympathy as Mr. Bumble. Thomas Derrah's buffoonery as Mr. Fang, the judge, is hilarious. There could not be a more angelic Oliver than Michael Wartella, who is particularly adept in his escape to London. Every step is the equivalent of days, and his exhaustion is palpable. Doing a fine job in filling out the cast are Jennifer Ikeda as the kind-hearted prostitute, Nancy; Steven Boyer doubling as Noah Claypole and Tom Chitling; Craig Pattison as Charley Bates, Lucas Steele as Toby Crackit; and Will LeBow and Elizabeth Jasicki as Mr. Brownlow and his daughter Rose.
The rich production, by Theatre for A New Audience in association with American Repertory and Berkeley Repertory Theatres, depends on the clever sets and costumes of Rae Smith. Her set, a dirty little subterranean room for the den of thieves, also serves as a rich drawing room for Oliver's ultimate family, the Brownlows. It is dotted with unseen trapdoors, entrances, cubbies, and slots for surprising scene changes that visually delight. The costumes are marvelous. Layers upon layers are stripped away in front of the audience as innocuously as ice melts in a glass of water on a warm day. Scott Zielinski and David Ramedios designed the expert lighting and sound, respectively.
Even if you have read all of Dickens, seen the movies, attended multiple productions, and know the plots inside and out, you will find Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Oliver Twist sophisticated, challenging, and inspiring. I highly recommend it.