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Oliver Twist at Berkeley Rep

A Dark Rendition

If you’ve never actually read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which is perhaps the most paradigmatic rags-to-riches story ever written, well…consider yourself at home. As adulated as Dickens is among the populist echelons and the fusty literati set, his erudite moral fables of industrial England gone bad are a little timeworn, a little too simplistic in our postmodern era of six billion people and clashing metanarratives. And with all the sentimental stage and screen revivals (particularly the 1963 film version, with its hum-worthy ditties and loveable rapscallions), it’s easy to write OT off as just another feel-good yarn.

But something wicked this way comes with British director Neil Bartlett’s caustic vision of Dickens’ magnum opus, currently enjoying a stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Gone are the amiable ruffians of previous incarnations. Instead, Bartlett’s script is peppered with brilliant, sarcastic ripostes encompassing those huddled masses failed by the Empire and its disingenuous promises of wealth. This is a script that screams of poverty, pain, and unspeakable cruelty. The character of Oliver Twist is nothing more than a glossy overlay swathing the sharper edges with sympathy and hope.

Bartlett’s unrelentingly dark sense of humor is evident from the very beginning; the set is a stage within a stage. The higher platform is reminiscent of a vaudevillian stage, made up with old-fashioned stage bulbs and a ramshackle wooden floor while the lower platform, closer to the audience, is practically never utilized, except as a method of transporting the players from one side of the action to the other. It’s a brilliant gambit that proffers a sense of removal and self-conscious performance. Rather than being presented with a play, audience members are getting a deeply self-aware series of stylized tableaux.

When the curtain rises, the characters are huddled together in black as they gaze impassively out into the audience. A quasi-chorus of sorts, mimicking the moral exposition of Greek tragedy, they quip: “Our tale is not so much true as old,” before spouting a few lines of cautionary poetry and assuring us quite vehemently that the story is one of good triumphing over evil. But the prelude, shrouded as it is in elegiac cues, is strikingly contrary to such pat affirmations. The characters are both garish and drab, smacking of the lowbrow cabaret acts of Victorian dancehalls and exuding an air of pertness that would convince you they really don’t care a bit about the protagonist whose praises they’re singing.

The self-aware, roguish, vaudevillian ambience gives way to the chorus becoming the players, and interspersing action with narrative. The bedraggled cast abruptly switch from being witnesses at Oliver Twist’s piteous birth (his mother dies during delivery) to cheeky orphans miserably wallowing over their gruel. Then the crowd parts as if it were the Red Sea, and we are introduced to Oliver Twist, a doe-eyed, asexual waif with an expression of benign bafflement that never wanes. He’s played by actor Michael Wartella, who obviously isn’t a ten-year-old boy, but the grand theatrics of the play let us overlook that. Oliver’s entry into the action, which takes place as narrator Carson Elrod recites a catalog of his virtues, is almost more allegorical than anything else. With a halo shining down on him, Oliver is more ethereal than defined, and infinitely less interesting than the rest of the cast, an amoral bunch of reprobates who bound around the stage like circus freaks.

Bartlett’s version puts Oliver through the wringer without mercy. Dickens’ tale, in many ways, is hyperbolic and biting, but at least he affords his protagonist some compassion. In the stage version, the cast represents the terrible court of public opinion, swirling around the poor boy like malicious wraiths (particularly during the immediately recognizable “Please, I want some more” scene). Additionally, while this isn’t a musical, a cappella chanting and composer Gerard McBurney’s carnivalesque accompaniment (a stridently mournful violin, a hurdy-gurdy, and a horn) provide a disturbing internal backdrop -- one that promises hardship around every corner.

Oliver experiences a string of misadventures, from being placed like a chunk of meat on an auction block to being stuffed in a trunk by his sadistic guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry. Ultimately, he runs away and finds temporary companionship amidst a pack of pickpockets, led by the ominous troublemaker, Fagin (played brilliantly by Ned Eisenberg). Oliver is discovered by the Artful Dodger (a frenetic, flamboyant, bandit-on-crack sort played by Carson Elrod, who also doubles as narrator), who leads him right into the lion’s den, to Fagin and archvillain Bill Sykes (a meaty, intimidating Gregory Derelian). As the story goes, Fagin is immediately taken by Oliver, whose girlish, innocent features suggest a natural inclination to the pilfering arts. The only sympathetic character in the midst of all this, other than Oliver, is Nancy, a trashy tavern girl played by Jennifer Ikeda. When you get beyond the veneer of her Cockney tough-girl act, she drops jewels like, “There is a passion for hunting something that is deeply embedded in the human breast,” a cynical summing-up of the exploitation that is at the heart of the story.

As things progress, Oliver is taken in by a wealthy family, the Brownlows, only to be summarily sucked back into the pickpockets’ den. The terrible interruption of the boy’s happiness, which the audience is rooting for, is emphasized by Scott Zielinski’s lighting, which juxtaposes sinister shadows with pools of light, lending tremendous dramatic power to every little grimace or widening of the eyes. Rae Smith’s warehouse-like stage set, a claustrophobic square fashioned with a medley of trap doors and other secret exits, sums up the bleakness of industrial England.

The entire cast is excellent (from huffy buffoon Mr. Bumble, played by Remo Airaldi, to his venal wife Mrs. Bumble, played by Karen MacDonald) as they alternate between comic relief and inquisitorial hostility. Eisenberg’s Fagin is particularly memorable -- a pseudo-father type who treats his boys with menacing affection. Literary critics have argued that the portrayal of Fagin, a corrupt, mercenary Jew, is loaded with anti-Semitism, which would come as no surprise given Dickens’ milieu. Eisenberg, in one brilliant scene, assumes a stereotypical Eastern European accent and directly addresses the audience, mocking them for their powerlessness to alleviate Oliver’s pain. It’s a remarkable instance of the play’s tendency to make fun of its most tragic elements, while also interrogating the audience’s own stereotypes and antipathies. In fact, beyond corrupt magistrates and rascally pickpockets, Dickens seems to be saying that it’s the apathy and unresponsiveness of the regular bystander that is most morally abhorrent. For instance, when Elrod details Oliver’s painstaking trek from the countryside to London, he notes that the city dwellers simply stare at the boy’s emaciated frame and bloody feet but say and do nothing. “Well, you don’t, do you?” Elrod breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, deadpan.

In the end, Oliver’s about-face into the midst of upper-crust gentility offers an ambivalent “happy ending” when we discover that the more contemptible of the lot were “reduced to great indigence” and sometimes, worse. The morality of the story is complicated because Bartlett’s version isn’t interested in the simple dichotomy of good and evil. Audience members can’t help but wonder, after all is said and done, what will become of those other marooned souls who have no hope of rising in rank, who have no rich relatives to offer them redemption and kindness.

Granted, the lack of a solid, identifiable protagonist is one of the play’s most glaring shortcomings; after all, Oliver is too much of a milquetoast, too colorless and naïve for us to completely identify with. But the other major characters -- such as Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Nancy, and Bill Sykes -- while richer than Oliver, are often too overwrought for us to care about them consistently, either.

In essence, this is a play whose success is more dependent on the staging and the ensemble action than any individual characters. Also, Bartlett’s version has none of the labyrinthine plot twists Dickens is known for, and it sacrifices fidelity to the novel for its own chaffing agenda, which can grate on the senses after a while. But despite all this, Bartlett has created a work that is intelligent and endlessly enticing, one that capsizes the theatricality of the original into a subversive performance piece, one that, unlike the falsely blithe adaptations we all know and love, echoes Dickens’ harrowing vision of societal apathy without apology.

"Oliver Twist" plays through June 24.