note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey
It’s a bit easier to distance oneself from the horrors of Dickens’ London than from more recent examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Two plays this month offer up powerful evidence of worlds gone mad, one from 1840 and the other from a hundred years later. The first is the American Repertory’s searing OLIVER TWIST (through March 24). Dickens, himself, I think, would applaud the joint production in association with Theatre for a New Audience. This OLIVER TWIST is dramatized a la NICHOLAS NICHELBY and punctuated with gorgeous Kurt Weill-style sung admonitions (composed by Gerard McBurney).
Director Neil Bartlett works within a tight, confining box-set (by Rae Smith), reminiscent of the “mechanicals” found in Victorian shop windows and arcades. Within the claustrophobic frame of the “penny dreadful” box, we witness the sordid result of the state orphanages, debtor prisons and stifling factories with which Dickens, as a boy, was intimately acquainted.
Michael Wartella is the naïf, Oliver, the sweetest of boys ever to discover the harsh realities of life. Carson Elrod morphs seamlessly from narrator to Artful Dodger, luring Oliver into a career in crime. Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald are nothing short of frightening as the cartoonish, self promoting Bumbles.
Gregory Derelian makes the blood run cold as the evil Bill Sykes and Ned Eisenberg produces chills as the charismatic Fagin. Eisenberg cleverly slides into a Yiddish accent, evoking yet another group of outsiders in Victorian England, in case we had forgotten.
From the fascinating, bizarre period instruments to the Brechtian “Greek” chorus, this production represents what the A.R.T. can do, unifying story, style and vision into superlative theater.