Charles Dickens'

Adapted and Directed by Neil Barrett
American Repertory Theatre
64 Brattle St. Harvard Sq. / (617) 547 - 8300
Through Mar. 24

Reviewed by Will Stackman

At the center of this faithful adaptation of Charles Dickens' best known novel, "Oliver Twist" is Ned Eisenberg's scenery chewing performance as Fagin, the mastermind of the gang of juvenile thieves. This role, usually played as a version of Shylock in the period, was a favorite of Victorian actor/managers. Indeed the novel was adapted for the stage before the completion of its serial publication. Michael Wartella as the title character, young Oliver, is also convincing as the eternal victim, even though he's hardly the ten year old of the original.

ART regulars, rotund Remo Airaldi as the Beadle Mr. Bumble, Karen MacDonald as the harridan who keeps the workhouse and marries Mr. Bumble, Will LeBow as Mr. Brownlow, Oliver's grandfather, and Thomas Derrah as Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker as well as Mr. Grimwig, Brownlow's cynical friend, perform up to their usual high standard, while also taking a number of minor roles. Lebow appears as the county magistrate who allows the Bumbles to sell Oliver as an apprentice to the dour Sowerberrys and Derrah is the judge from whom Brownlow rescues Oliver.

Notable visiting artists include glowering Gregory Derelian as Bill Sykes -- sans dog. He also plays Mrs. Sowerberry. Jennifer Ikea is doomed Nancy, the teenage prostitute who loves him, and also appears in the first scene as Oliver's dead mother. Carson Elrod is the Artful Dodger, who starts the evening narrating Oliver's early days changing into the young criminal during a fateful meeting with Oliver on the road to London. Elizabeth Jasicki plays Charlotte Sowerberry and later Rose Brownlow. Finally four main members of Fagin's band are uniformly convincing as they morph from character to character, form a street band to play Gerald McBurney's original score on the violin, the hurdy-gurdy and the blaring serpent, as well as joining the ensemble in musical interludes during which the cast sings short setting of the author's prose commentary.

Designer Rae Smith's set is a unique combination of early Victorian popular theatricals, arcade penny dreadful tableaus, toy theatre, and stylized gruesome melodrama. Banners and signs fly in and out, trap doors open, and most of the action occurs in a raised box set with mottled and stained walls. Her costumes are derived from crude illustrations from the period, from rags on the poor, Nancy as a garish trollop, padded Victorian caricatures for the Bumbles, and stylized upper class for togs for the Brownlows. Neil Barrett's direction is marvelously choreographed with moments of mock solemnity and frozen violence. Lighting by Scott Zielinski, who recently did "Three Sisters" and "Dido, Queen of Carthage" for the ART, uses theatrical effects to shift the mood. A.R.T's David Remedios' usual first-rate sound design completes this revival of "Oliver Twist" which will next move to NYC's Theatre for a New Audience.

Barrett's approach could be loosely described as Brechtian, but really springs from the similar melodrama sources and the diversity of Victorian theatrical expression. Dickens was an ardent follower of popular entertainment, including it in several of his novels. He got on the boards himself with his reading tours of "A Christmas Carol." It's even been suggested that rather than attempt to prevent premature productions of his serial novels, he paid close attention to audience reactions and tailored his final chapters according to their reactions. This production also attempts to include the author's moral indignation at society's indifference to the suffering of the poor in Victorian England by having the Dodger, who functions as the principal narrator, read from the novel directly, including the fate of him and his compatriots. But of course it's the looming force of Fagin, here played full-bore by Eisenberg personifying greed combined by the recurring brutality exemplified by Bill Sykes, that drives such a lesson home.

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