Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist
Adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett
From the novel by Charles Dickens
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
In association with American Repertory Theatre
and Theatre for a New Audience
May 11-June 24
Michael Wartella (Oliver), Carson Elrod (the Artful Dodger). Photo: Kevin Berne
Anyone who has seen the popular musical “Oliver” or the film of the same name is aware of the many twists and turns to the tale. But never are these so apparent as in a new adaptation of “Oliver Twist” currently having its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep. The presenters would have us believe that this is the way the story was meant to be told, in broad strokes of black and white with enough old-fashioned melodrama to make you want to cheer the hero and hiss at the villain (and, indeed, on opening night, there was at least one shouted comment from the audience). It is a “penny dreadful” come to life but whether or not this is more than a historical curiosity to a modern theatergoer really is up to the individual.
Director Neil Bartlett, the former director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theater, has wisely chosen not to fiddle with the story, presenting it, wherever possible, in Dickens’ own words. To speed the action along, passages straight from the book are read by a narrator (Carson Elrod who also doubles as The Artful Dodger). The plot should be familiar. The orphan, Oliver (Michael Wartella), at the age of 10, finds himself unloved, unwanted and hungry to boot. He is kicked out of the workhouse by the self-important and avaricious Mr. and Mrs. Bumble (Remo Airaldi, Karen MacDonald) and sold into apprenticeship to the local undertaker (Thomas Derrah), a fellow as dour as his profession, and his stingy wife (Gregory Derelian in delightful drag). He escapes, only to fall in with a den of thieves, headed by Fagin (Ned Eisenberg), who is the real star of the show.
A series of misadventures on his first assignment with the other young pickpockets employed by Fagin brings our hero into the arms and highly comfortable home of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Will LeBow) and his daughter Rose (Elizabeth Jasicki). Oliver is saved at last! Except he isn’t and is soon virtually kidnapped and returned to Fagin by the prostitute Nancy (Jennifer Ikeda) and her lover/pimp the murderous Bill Sykes (Derelian again). Eventually, good wins out over evil – as it must in a melodrama – and Oliver is returned to the bosom of what turns out to be his real family. But not before a few more twists. The second act, as the tension mounts and the bodies begin to pile up, actually is rather gripping, far better than the first.
The acting is uniformly good, with Fagin a standout, especially in his Act Two mad scene. Although Wartella does his passive best, the title character is more acted upon than acting, not really engaging much more than our pity. Incidental music, by Gerard McBurney, takes off from the tradition of the Victorian music hall, with violin, hurdy-gurdy, percussion and the cast bellowing out the lyrics when the occasion arises for a song. The show is wonderfully designed (Rae Smith) with lots of trap doors and secret passages that do much to heighten the suspense.
There is murder, mayhem and betrayal a-plenty. Nobody can say that this staging is a mere plate of gruel (the meager, tasteless staple of a workhouse diet). But neither is it the kind of tasty theatrical morsel that makes you want to step up and say “Please, may I have some more,” which, incidentally, is how Oliver Twist got into trouble in the beginning.