Like similarly titled adaptations that profess to distinguish themselves from previous versions by fealty to the source material, Berkeley Rep's Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist goes off in another direction entirely, an English music-hall-inspired grotesquery more appropriate in tone to George Cruikshank's original illustrations than the novel's arch prose.
Though constructed almost entirely from Dickens' language, Neil Bartlett's script omits many characters, simplifies the plot, and adds enough foreshadowing that the eventual revelations are pretty obvious early on. If the action seems rushed at times because of this, any loss of substance is offset by a surfeit of style.
Coming to us from London by way of Boston and New York, Rae Smith's ingenious Obie-winning set looks like a dingy, cramped box upon the large stage. Floor, walls, and ceiling alike are covered with smudges and footprints that obscure trapdoors and slots out of which signs or posters emerge at the turn of a crank.
Bartlett's take on one ticklish element of the novel is at best perplexing. The adaptation avoids referring to the sinister Fagin as a Jew, just as it shies away from calling Charley "Master Bates," but Ned Eisenberg slips awkwardly back and forth between Cockney and Yiddish accents as the master thief. What's bizarre is Fagin's habit of gesturing magically to dim the lights or send people to sleep. When did he become the Magic Jew?
Though Carson Elrod makes a sympathetic narrator, his Artful Dodger is too much larger than life, often at the expense of comprehensibility. True to the book, Oliver doesn't really do much but suffer and embody good, and Michael Wartella is appropriately cowering and tiny-voiced when he speaks at all.
It's the supporting cast that really stands out, such as Remo Airaldi as venal beadle Mr. Bumble and Gregory Derelian embodying menace as Bill Sykes and looming in campy drag as Mrs. Sowerberry.
Oliver Twist makes an amusing music-hall melodrama, and it's usual to streamline a novel to fit into two hours, but when the story is just the many twists and travails an orphan boy endures on his way to an uncertain fate, the fewer twists there are the less there is to Twist.
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