Review: Charles Dickens’ `Oliver Twist’

Opened May 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre

Berkeley Rep gives Dickens a dark Twist
Three stars Grim ‘n’ grand

We’re told early on in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a bracing stage adaptation of the classic novel, that what we’re about to see is complete fiction. The story concerns “hope flourishing when all hope has passed,” and that means, according to Dickens, that it couldn’t possibly be true.

Ah, the sting of Dickens.

In Twist, Dickens is at his rabble-rousing, hyperbolic best. In telling the story of an impossibly good-hearted 10-year-old orphan who suffers every imaginable cruelty, he gave the so-called civilized world a big flat-handed smack to the face.

Everything in Oliver Twist is so dark, so mean and so biting, it’s funny – by design. For all the grimness, there’s abundant humor in Dickens’ blistering scolding. If you are on of the “haves’’ who has ever ignored – or worse – oppressed the “have nots,’’ Dickens considers you even worse than the murderers, pickpockets and corrupt lawmen who populate his story.

The popular 1963 musical Oliver! took the story at face value and gave us a cartoonish, sentimental tale with hummable songs and step-lively dancing.

British director Neil Bartlett wants to retrieve Dickens’ satiric edge from the clutches of “Consider Yourself’’ and “Oom-Pah-Pah.’’

He does so quite effectively in Oliver Twist, a London hit in 2004 that is now seeing its first American tour (with an American cast) in association with American Repertory Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience and Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The Twist now at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre is a spin on Victorian melodrama complete with footlights, bare-bones theatricality and overblown acting that wouldn’t be out of place in a silent film.

Bartlett isn’t much interested in Dickens’ comic sensibility with its broadly drawn buffoons like Mr. Bumble (Remo Airaldi), whose stage time is minimal, as is that of his shrewish wife and co-conspirator (Karen MacDonald). No, Bartlett seems much more interested in Dickens’ menace.

It’s there in the ominous shadows of Scott Zielinski’s lighting design. It’s there in the boxy set by Rae Smith, where it looks like a printer’s dark, inky toner cartridge exploded in the corner. Smith, who also designed the tattered costumes, reduces a full-color world to black, gray and beige with only a hint of color here and there.

Though this is not a musical (and, by the way, not for young children), there is music. Composer Gerard McBurney has the ensemble a cappella chant-singing chunks of Dickens’ dialogue, and occasionally, he creeps us out with actors playing a screechy violin, a disconcerting hurdy-gurdy and a serpent-shaped horn that blows no good.

As we follow Oliver from his dismal birth to the defining events of his 10th year, we find a world almost devoid of compassion. Shortly after asking for more gruel at the work house, Oliver is pushed into service as an undertaker’s lackey. Then he wends his way – on bloody feet no less – to London, where he falls in with a terrible crew of pickpockets and thieves.

The ring leader is Fagin (Ned Eisenberg, above left), whose affection for his lost boys is unnerving to say the least. Chief thief is Artful Dodger (a spry Carson Elrod, who also serves as narrator), and chief bad guy is Bill Sykes (an imposing Gregory Derelian, above right).

Oliver is played by Michael Wartella in shades of wide-eyed misery, and the fact that he’s not a child, though perfectly in keeping with the exaggerated theatricality of the production, somehow robs the story of some internal light.

In the realm of Dickens’ thick darkness, director Bartlett does well. But he seems leery of Dickens’ equally powerful affection for well-earned sentiment, he backs off.

The good-hearted prostitute Nancy (Jennifer Ikeda complete with visible bruises on her neck and arms) is the best example of nearly extinguished goodness, but the supposedly good folks (Will LeBow as Mr. Brownlow and Elizabeth Jasicki as Rose Brownlow) hardly get a chance to be anything more than meddling rich people who take an interest in Oliver’s welfare.

Amid all the inventive direction and diverting theatrics, we hear Dickens loud and clear: There’s goodness in the world, and most of us are squelching or ignoring it. But we don’t get the full-heart experience that Dickens seemed to manage so well. Sure life is bad and we give in to our base natures, but there’s always hope. Even Dickens never really believed that was entirely fiction.

For information about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist visit

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