Cross-purposes

ART’s Oliver Twist , the New Rep’s Orson’s Shadow
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  March 1, 2007

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OLIVER TWIST: Is it Brecht or boo-hoo Bartlett is aiming at?

Oliver Twist gets the Brecht treatment in Neil Bartlett’s new adaptation at American Repertory Theatre (at the Loeb Drama Center through March 24). Bartlett, who first directed the show in London, presents it as a literary narrative, with sections of Dickens’s novel read aloud by Carson Elrod to bridge the dramatic scenes. And some of the visual elements — the footlights, Rae Smith's [please see correction below] clever box set — hark back to the conventions of 19th-century melodrama and music hall. But Bartlett’s point isn’t really to evoke the period in which the book was written. The down-front lighting (by Scott Zielinski) [please see correction below] drains the actors’ faces, so that when they huddle together at the play’s opening they look like a band of ghosts. This effect works together with the narrator, the portions of text sung a cappella by the ensemble, and the heavily stylized acting to put quotation marks around the material.

Bartlett’s approach certainly worked on the opening-night audience, which cheered and gave the show a standing ovation. But I have to confess I don’t get the point of applying all these distancing devices to Oliver Twist, unless you find Dickensian sentimentality bourgeois and offensive, as Brecht certainly would have. And Bartlett obviously doesn’t. He wants to underscore Dickens’s message about cruelty to children — which is so obvious in the novel that to point it up seems a prime example of gilding the lily. Moreover, he likes the sentimentality. He interrupts the flow of the story with all these Brechtian techniques, but then he directs Elrod to read the literary sections straight, with extra emphasis on the pathos. It’s as if, at the end of Die Dreigroschenoper, after the company steps forward to sing the moral about poverty and corruption, Brecht and Weill had added a tender description of a child starving to death on the open road and made the audience cry.

Oliver Twist is great dramatic material, as the last three movie versions (1948, 1968, and 2005) prove. But Bartlett manages, against all odds, to make it rather dull. Drawing on his Théâtre de Complicité training (he was one of its early members), he comes up with some bits of pared-down, openly theatrical staging, like having Elrod catch the exhausted Oliver (Michael Wartella) as he trudges toward London after escaping from his indentured enslavement at Mr. Sowerberry’s funeral parlor. But then he repeats them — and repeats them. (We have to watch Oliver stagger and nearly fall seven times, once for every day of his journey.) And the deliberately flat, frontal staging undercuts even his best ideas. It feels like hours before he’s done with the sequence where Fagin (Ned Eisenberg) and his boys teach Oliver how to slip a hanky out of a gentleman’s back pocket. And the set-up to get Nancy (Jennifer Ikeda) to London Bridge — where she meets secretly with Rose Brownlow (Elizabeth Jasicki), the daughter of Oliver’s rich benefactor, to convey the whereabouts of the kidnapped boy — is about as interesting to look at as a high-school football coach’s game plan.

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Related: Fagin’s follies, A winter’s tale, Making us stronger, More more >
  Topics: Theater , Orson Welles, Janie Howland, Judith Auberjonois,  More more >
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