A strong 'Twist'
Neil Bartlett works magic in adapting the Dickens classic for a US premiere at the ART
CAMBRIDGE -- Adapting a novel for the theater is at once an act of love and an act of murder. If a play is to be truly theatrical, it can no longer be truly literary; the admiring playwright must kill the author in order to keep his story alive.
This the British director Neil Bartlett has done, in his bold and deeply theatrical reimagining of one of Charles Dickens's most popular novels. Bartlett may call his play, now receiving its US premiere at the American Repertory Theatre, "Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist," and he may, unlike many earlier adapters, hew closely to the actual words of Dickens's text. But make no mistake: This is Neil Bartlett's "Oliver Twist."
Bartlett's vision is clear from the first moment, when a plain black curtain rises to reveal the darkly ingenious box of a set. Bartlett (who last visited the ART in 2005 with "Dido, Queen of Carthage") has said that he and his longtime collaborator, Rae Smith, developed the design after studying Victorian "penny dreadful" machines, small dioramas that displayed thrilling scenes of mayhem to anyone with a penny to spare. It's a striking idea, and one that plays well with Dickens's own propensity for heightened emotions and stark contrasts.
As the action proceeds, the actors pull levers or open doors to transform the space; this simple box becomes, in a flash, the workhouse where Oliver is born, Fagin's den of pickpockets, a busy street, a genteel parlor, or London Bridge. By a similar magic, 11 of the company's 13 members (all but Fagin and Oliver ) don cloaks or shed hats to fill the stage with a whole throng of Dickens's vivid eccentrics, saints, and villains.
Light and sound, too, work in concert to create a whole and wholly fascinating experience of Bartlett's Dickens. Sometimes footlights evoke the stylized gloom of Victorian melodrama; sometimes an ethereal beam from above illuminates a brief moment of hope amid the murk. Songs -- Dickens's words, set to old music-hall tunes -- punctuate and underscore the action, as does an oddly appropriate Victorian trio of violin, hurdy-gurdy, and serpent (a snaky tube that sounds like a foghorn, only less melodious).
In such a thoroughly imagined and carefully crafted world, it seems only natural that the actors should act in deeply unnatural ways. These are not real people, or even real characters; they are, self-consciously, actors enacting a whole culture's worth of stereotypes, caricatures, and tropes.
This distinction is most evident in Bartlett's conception of Fagin, the perverted version of a father figure who tries to initiate Oliver into a life of crime. In Ned Eisenberg's passionate and layered performance, we see not just the villain that Dickens indelibly created but the prejudices, conventions, and blind spots that contributed to that creation.
At one weird, critical moment, Eisenberg suddenly shifts from a Cockney to a Yiddish accent, the footlights turn harsh, and we are confronted with the ancient, vicious stereotype of the villainous Jew. Then the lights change, the accent shifts back, and we're just watching Fagin again -- but thinking, inescapably, about the dark currents of Dickens's culture (and ours) from which he sprang.
That's only one instance of the ways in which Bartlett comments on "Oliver Twist" even as he's reimagining it. In place of the distinctive, inimitable voice of the author -- that lively, sardonic, deeply moral, and ultimately humane voice we can only call "Dickensian" -- Bartlett gives us his own distinctive vision.
This self-aware approach sometimes creates too much emotional distance; for all the finely calibrated work by the ensemble, this is not an "Oliver Twist" that will make you weep. It is also not one that's particularly suitable for sensitive young children.
For adults who've already shed their share of tears over poor Oliver, however, it is a revealing and thought-provoking experience. It's Neil Bartlett's "Oliver Twist," all right, but it leaves us with a new and more complex understanding of the "Oliver Twist" we thought we knew.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.