Oliver Twist, A CurtainUp review, CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist has asked for more!— Mrs. Bumble
Michael Wartella (as Oliver) and Carson Elrod (as The Artful Dodger)

in Oliver Twist
L-R: Michael Wartella (as Oliver) and Carson Elrod (as The Artful Dodger) in Oliver Twist. (Photo: Michael J. Lutch)
For a long time in academic circles Charles Dickens was considered a good writer, but ultimately more of a social commentator than a genuine artist. It is fortunate that most of the non-academic public disagreed, because Dickensís popularity never waned during the years when his literary importance was being dismissed. More recently the academic world has begun to realize what the rest of the world already knew—there is something intensely powerful about Dickensís work, and to ignore that power is to ignore one of English literatureís most significant authors. I hoped that the Theatre for a New Audience had picked up on this trend in their latest take on the Dickens classic Oliver Twist, and Iím happy to report that it in fact treats the work so seriously that the result is both surprisingly dark and shockingly resonant.

TFANAís latest foray into classic theater comes with a London pedigree, as this Oliver Twist (adapted by the redoubtable Neil Bartlett, also the director) began there in 2004 (see link to our London review below). In his notes, Bartlett says that he "wanted to create an adaptation that would not shy away from. . .seriousness, but rather relish it," and there is little doubt of that here. This is not the Oliver Twist of musical and movie screen, but a far darker expression of the poverty, vicious cruelty and despair at the center of London which Dickens experienced as a child and fought against so fervently as an adult.—and in that sense it is much truer to his vision than previous attempts have been.

The set (wonderfully conceived by Rae Smith) is a smaller stage recessed into the larger one, with a series of levers, cranks and ropes which control street signs from the walls, posters which descend from the ceiling and so on. The effect is a kind of nightmarish take on a Victorian-era mechanical contraption, and combined with the use of period instruments (violin, "serpent" and hurdy-gurdy) sets a menacing backdrop for Oliverís various encounters. But most important to Dickensís work are his characters, and as usual TFANA does not disappoint.

The cast is uniformly excellent, from Michael Wartellaís rendering of the title characterís angelic innocence to Jennifer Ikedaís intense portrayal of the prostitute Nancy to Remo Airaldiís appropriately overblown take on the self-satisfied Mr. Bumble. Gregory Derelian is convincing as the vicious Bill Sykes, and Carson Elrod is by turns sympathetic and roguish in his versions of the narrator John Dawkins and the young thief The Artful Dodger. None of the members of the cast particularly stand out from each other, but of course that is partly the point; in many ways Oliver Twist is more about the abuse of human beings as human beings than about what individual characteristics might make their ill treatment more or less acceptable, and so a fine ensemble performance is more critical than tour de force solo performances. In one particularly poignant scene, the narrator relates the details of Oliverís journey to London while periodically supporting him when he is about to collapse from exhaustion. It is a subtle but inspired piece of directing by Bartlett, and the production is filled with moments just like it.

If there is a character intended to be the focus of this adaptation, it is Fagin (played by the familiar Ned Eisenberg), the avaricious head of a group of young thieves who support themselves and (mostly) him through various acts of bad behavior. Bartlett says he was most influenced by the character of Fagin, and this shows a number of times throughout the production. But whether because of Eisenbergís understated performance or Bartlettís direction, the effect doesnít really come off. Bartlett views both Fagin and Oliver as outcasts, the latter because of his orphaned status and the former because of his Jewish heritage; but if this commonality should draw the two together as a kind of surrogate father and son, as Bartlett intends, Faginís unlikeability makes it difficult to accept the logic of the relationship. Not even his young charges are in awe of Fagin because of his talentsóinstead they are obedient through fear alone, and this one-dimensional portrayal of Fagin the stereotype rather than Fagin the human being is really the playís only misstep. In the end, though, this is a minor objection.

This Oliver Twist is decidedly not for young children, and it is not the pleasant image of street urchins singing about the glories of food that we are familiar with. But as Bartlett says, this adaptation takes Dickens seriously, and the result is a harrowing vision of cruelty and hope in the face of overwhelming pressure to abandon it. If there is a more consistently excellent theater company in existence today than the Theatre for a New Audience, I donít know of it. This is a superb production.

For a review of the London production (different cast) go here.

Author: Charles Dickens
Adapted by Neil Bartlett
Director: Neil Bartlett
Music: Gerard McBurney
Cast: Remo Airaldi (Mr. Bumble), Steven Boyer (Noah Claypole/Tom Chitling), Gregory Derelian (Bill Sykes/Mrs. Sowerberry), Thomas Derrah (Mr. Sowerberry/Mr. Grimwig/Mr. Fang), Ned Eisenberg (Fagin), Carson Elrod (John Dawkins/The Artful Dodger), Jennifer Ikeda (Nancy), Elizabeth Jasicki (Rose Brownlow/Charlotte Sowerberry), Will LeBow (Mr. Brownlow), Karen Macdonald (Mrs. Bumble), Craig Pattison (Charley Bates), Lucas Steele (Toby Crackit), Michael Wartella (Oliver Twist)
Scenic and Costume Design: Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: David Remedios
Music Adaptor and Director: Simon Deacon
Movement Director: Struan Leslie
Production Stage Manager: Chris DeCamillis
Running time: Two hours, twenty minutes including fifteen minute intermission
Theatre For a New Audience at The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 899 Tenth Avenue, (212) 229-2819
Web Site:
From 3/29/07 through 4/15/07; opening 4/1/07
Tues. @ 8 p.m., Wed. April 4 @ 2 and 7:30 p.m., Wed. April 11 @ 2 p.m., Thurs. and Fri. @ 8 p.m., Sat. @ 2 and 8 p.m., Sun. @ 3 p.m.
Tickets: $65-69 regular, $10 for all 25 and younger

Reviewed by Gregory Wilson based on March 31st press performance
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