Neil Bartlett's delightful adaptation of Oliver Twist, now playing at Boston's American Repertory Theatre -- it opened originally at London's Hammersmith Lyric Theatre three years ago, and will go on to Theatre for a New Audience in New York and Berkeley Rep after this run -- casts off the sentimental goo that has accrued to the story over the past 170 years. In condensing and dramatizing the sprawling, picaresque saga, Bartlett adheres to Dickens' own words and adopts his tone, that of an arch, appalled onlooker as concerned with the need for social reform as he is with crafting a compelling tale.
Everything about this production, from Rae Smith's surprise-packed "penny dreadful" box of a set and class-telegraphic costuming to Gerard McBurney's dour incidental instrumentals and plainsong choruses, truly impresses with one unfortunate exception:Michael Wartella, an adult, plays the 10-year-old orphan. Wartella is suitably scrawny and starved-looking, and he's got the battered body language down. But every time he pipes up -- and I mean pipes, like Pee Wee Herman -- any illusion of realism is shattered. True, this is one of those stylized stagings where the audience is acknowledged and addressed directly, so there's no pretense of real immersion in 19th-century London life. But for us to care about this child, or even to see him as a child, a bit more veracity is required.
Other performers handle the balancing act with more aplomb. Carson Elrod deftly segues from the role of narrator to that of Artful Dodger; one quick muss of the hair into a rakish quiff and the wise observer becomes the crafty Cockney charmer. When not portraying the cartoonishly pumped thug Bill Sykes, Gregory Derelian aces another, unexpected role. Elizabeth Jasicki is luminous in the small role of Rose Brownlow, and Will LeBow puts his sonorous bass to good use as her father, Oliver's staunch, would-be savior.
In the vacuum left by a straw-boy Oliver, Fagin comes to the fore; in fact, he gets so much stage time, you'd think the show was called Fagin. (Oliver Twist runs two and a half hours, and certain longueurs, like the pickpocketing demos, could use curtailing.) Fortunately, Ned Eisenberg paints an intriguingly nuanced portrait of the fence, whose solicitous manner belies a ruthless rapacity. Yes, there are offensive anti-Semitic stereotypes at play here; but Eisenberg so inhabits the character, especially in a closing mad scene, that you feel you're observing a disturbed, desperate individual instead of a caricature.
Poorhouse despots Mr. and Mrs. Bumble, played by ART company stalwarts Remo Airaldi and Karen MacDonald, really are stock comic villains; if you took their actions at face value, their everyday evil would overwhelm. MacDonald shimmies into a veritable tizzy when her temper gets the best of her, and Airaldi is particularly effective as he confides to the audience his reservations about presumably blissful domesticity. That is, he starts to confide, but he is rendered speechless by the horror, the horror. Evidently, not all torture is so overt or reversible as the torments rained on poor Oliver Twist.