By KEN BULLOCK
Special to the Planet
“Please, sir ...” It seems that almost everybody knows that Oliver wants some more, as Dickens’ great book of the London slums has been sentimentalized and staged and filmed, just as his Christmas Carol finds its way into countless theatrical venues every holiday season. But there have been few enough adaptations of the novelist’s creations that have served up the sensibilities of Dickensian genius—much less what’s actually there, in the stories themselves—as well as the innovative, theatrically satisfying version of Oliver Twist, as adapted by Neil Bartlett, with Gerard McBurney’s fitting music, produced in association with American Repertory Theatre and Theatre for a New Audience, onstage at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre until June 24.
Originally commissioned by the Lyric Hammersmith in London, Oliver Twist boasts a fine, very professional ensemble of 13 performers, who take on double duty as they switch seamlessly (or with great humor, as Gregory Drelian, the big, stubbly lug who becomes street thug Bill Sykes doubles in a bonnet as the smarmy mortician’s wife, Mrs. Sowerberry) from one persona to the next, following orphaned Oliver (Michael Wartella) in his indenture to the Sowerberrys and subsequent escape to London, where he’s discovered by the devious Artful Dodger (Carson Elrod, marvelously transforming himself from Narrator to the grotesque attitude of the Dodger in a twinkling), and led through the tortuous streets and alleys of London’s Chinese box puzzle of a plan, with the Dodger reeling out the place names Homerically, into the most degraded inner slums, where Oliver is shoehorned in among the other youngsters of Fagin’s troupe of pediatric pickpockets, the apple of his mentor’s eye, with “the face of an angel,” meaning more loot from their slippery business of street mayhem.
Fagin is played by Ned Eisenberg in a stand-out performance, a grinning, overly amicable monster who can turn on a farthing into a vengeful demon. A self-parodying Jew, who in moments of terror resorts to Hebrew prayer, Eisenberg’s Fagin dances like a delicate marmoset on his toes when he sees Oliver come to visit him in prison—then, after failing at an escape with the boy in tow, he’s engulfed by the sheer stage darkness of his fate, a frightening, sobering moment straight from the book, as is Fagin’s first, torqued posture in custody, taken right from Cruikshank’s original caricatures of the novel’s personae.
Bartlett, who expressed the wish to explore the many facets of narrative and dramatic means by which Dickens, himself an amateur player and professional raconteur, mounted his great stories, compounded of a reformer’s zeal and “that savage old English humor” (as T. S. Eliot described the last survival of the dark laughter from Elizabethan dramatists Marlowe and Middleton in this Victorian’s popular serial novels), manages to touch on that strange, volatile mixture with which Dickens could tell, with Shakespearean scope, of one world existing cheek-by-jowl, all-unknowing, with another.
There’s a sense of almost cosmic finality when Oliver, recovered by the world of “The Quality,” stands oblivious in tableau with his long-lost, unknown relatives, as his former companions of the workhouse and the streets are propelled through narration into their bleak, ghastly fates—a kind of gut-wrenching schism between social castes that seems to rip apart the stage, with its excellent grimy decor, like a paper toy theater.
There’s a contemporary taste for self-narrating theatricals, and the “word-for-word” kind of adaptation of texts performed verbatim, talked through onstage, could learn a good deal from Bartlett’s skillful use of Dickens’ essentially unmodified text, of speech rhythms transformed, through the physical theater practices of the talented performers, into stage rhythms, of each disparate element finding its appropriate expression in concert with the rest—and what could have been merely a tour-de-force turned into compelling theatrical art. It’s a true tribute to Dickens, whose great stature, influence and infectious humanity can be hinted at by the excitement conveyed by Henry James, so different a writer and artist, in memoirs penned late, of the great occasion of meeting the great Charles Dickens and the impression he made, at the start of a career of genius.
Through June 24 at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. $45-$61. 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.
Photograph by Kevin Berne
Michael Wartella and Carson Elrod star in a dark new take on Oliver Twist.