By Ruth Ross, Correspondent
Because Charles Dickens was paid by the word — and wrote in installments — his novels tend to be dense with character, plot development, description and pointed comments about the inequities of society. When the installments appeared in the newspapers, the people usually gathered around to listen to them being read aloud.
Unfortunately, in today’s busy social climate, hardly anyone reads Dickens anymore — other than high school freshmen who slog their way through “Great Expectations” before swearing off any other books by the author.
Thus, it is refreshing that Neil Bartlett has used his skill at adaptation to work magic on “Oliver Twist,” a novel more familiar to modern readers through a stage or film musical by Lionel Bart. If that’s your only experience with Dickens, I suggest you visit the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, where an inventive production graces the stage through Sunday, Oct. 7. While this literate and faithful version of an orphan boy who is lost and finally found may not send you to the library, you will experience a thrilling evening of theater.
With 13 actors playing more than two dozen roles, this version of “Oliver Twist” uses Dickens’ actual words for the dialogue and narrative bridges that propel the action, set a scene, or offer social pronouncements.
When we meet him, 10-year-old orphan Oliver has spent his entire childhood in a squalid workhouse after his unwed mother died in childbirth. Taunted and tormented by his workmates as “a naughty orphan which nobody can love,” the boy is starved for food, friendship and love.
His “escape” from this prison begins with his being sold by the parish beadle to a family of undertakers, continues as he runs away to London where he comes under the tutelage of a fence named Fagin, and ends with his redemption as the adoptive song of a well-to-do family, the Brownlows.
Along the way, the spunky youngster is beaten, threatened and forced to steal for his supper. This degradation visited on a boy with “a face like an angel” reveals “the best and worst shades of our natures,” man at his “ugliest and loveliest,” so that in the end the principle of good survives and triumphs.
Director Brian Crowe guides this small cast through superbly choreographed and complicated action, and elicits performances that border on genius. Quentin McCuiston may look older than a 10-year-old Oliver, but he projects the boy’s innocence and resilience while telegraphing his vulnerability and raising our sympathy.
As the Artful Dodger, Robbie Collier Sublett, a pickpocket extraordinaire, may not be as cute as the movie musical version of the play, but he does show a bit of humanity toward Oliver and acts as a very expressive narrator in the opening and closing scenes. With his Cockney accent he pronounces his v’s as w’s — wery instead of very — to the audience’s glee.
The adults in this tale are almost uniformly nasty. Eric Hoffmann portrays Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle, as a self-righteous, pompous man in the beginning, so it’s poetic justice when he becomes a hen-pecked husband after marrying Mrs. Corney, the matron of the workhouse, played with delicious evil by Tina Stafford, who also plays a mean accordion.
Any kindness exhibited toward Oliver by Mr. Sowerberry the undertaker, played by Andrew Boyer, is totally negated by his braying spouse, played by Jeffrey M. Bender in wig and padding. Bender is a very vicious Bill Sikes, a brutal thief and housebreaker; with his red eyes and mean glare, he’s very scary. And the thief/prostitute Nancy, sympathetically depicted by Corey Tazmania, represents the effects of gin and drugs and a woman in thrall to an abusive man — in this case Sikes.
Ames Adamson turns in an outstanding performance as the “covetful, avaricious” Fagin. Long derided as an example of Victorian anti-Semitism, Fagin, as performed by Adamson, speaks in a very faint accent that is hard to place; it is not Yiddish, Cockney or British, but an amalgam of the three. Not until he recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer recited for the dead, just before his hanging are we sure he’s Jewish. Adamson does not pile on the usual, lascivious behavior often ascribed to Fagin. He’s more businessman than monster, making him all the more dangerous.
Unfortunately, although Dickens’ syntax and diction may have gone out of style, his concerns have not. “Oliver Twist” is the perfect tale for election season, as we argue over how much the government owes to the poor. And, young people still turn to crime just to survive, and becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs isn’t inimical to 1837 — it’s a great problem in America today.
Once again, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey shows us what a class act it is. The theater’s wonderful way with delivery and staging makes for a breathtaking production of “Oliver Twist” that should not be missed. It is on stage at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave. in Madison.
For additional information and tickets, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
Ruth Ross, a retired English teacher, has reviewed local theater since 1996. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.