Charles Dickens's classic tale of orphan Oliver and his most adventurous "progress" in the underworld of Victorian London gets a faithful retelling in Neil Bartlett's ultra-theatrical adaptation. While not the smoothest of productions, there's plenty of Dickens' picaresque drama and indelible characters on stage at Theatre Southwest for us to get reacquainted with this fabulous story from the undisputed master of Victorian literature.
Bartlett decides to go all "theatrical" in his retelling, as if plain old dramatizing weren't enough for this 1837 masterpiece. Here, he overlays scenes with tableaux vivants, a device from the Victorian stage where the action freezes in a well-composed picture. This hoary convention might still work if the freezing took place either before the scene started or after the scene ended; it really doesn't work at all when it happens in the middle of a scene. It stops the action deader than a door nail. It also smells precious and coy, two traits not ever associated with Dickens's little orphan boy.
Dickens's mighty work, first published as a monthly serial that ran from February 1837 through April 1839 in Bentley's Miscellany, is rich with incident and overflowing with iconic portraits that have become firmly etched in the world's consciousness. Who doesn't know Oliver's plea for another bowl of gruel to the workhouse overseer Mr. Bumble, "Please, sir, I want some more"? Who isn't familiar with the oily, perverse machinations of Fagin, master of his "dear" ragamuffin army of hooligans and petty street criminals, led by the Artful Dodger, prince of pickpockets? And what about slut Nancy and her psychotic attraction to Bill Sikes, one of literature's most sadistic villains? Yet even she, wretched, without hope and future, carries a glimmer of maternal goodness toward Oliver, saving his life while losing hers, beaten to death by her lover. They're all here, and all very much alive.
With his face like an angel -- so Fagin describes him as the perfect lure for his criminal schemes -- little Caleb Ortega is the very picture of Oliver and is most sympathetic. He must constantly react to all manner of situations, none very pleasant, and he acquits himself like a trooper. John Stevens eats up Fagin with a spoon, crouching over like a crooked spider to work his evil ways. In his worn greatcoat, he insinuates himself with false modesty and gentlemanly pretense. Long hair wrapped pirate-style in bandana, he could pose for Dickens's great illustrator Cruikshank. Liz King, as Nancy, is handsome enough for a Cockney beauty gone to seed, and her misguided love for Bill is plain to all. What a fantastic horror Adan Inteuz makes as Sikes, amoral and threatening, solid and moving like a shark. Avery Stinson, as the Artful Dodger, moves like he could pick a pocket or two and gives this street kid a very cool reading.
The subsidiary characters are handled with authentic finesse by Carolyn Montgomery, Monica Passley, Michel Stevens, Casey Coale, and Bruce Blifford. All of them would've been granted a nod of approval from Mr. Dickens. The tribe of lost boys, however, needs tightening up to be a more effective gang. These kids aren't playing at the arcade after school; it's life or death on the mean streets of London in 1837. Make it real.
In this epic work, Dickens shone the light on the sordid lives of the innumerable hopeless and oppressed in Victorian England. He gave one, Oliver, a miraculously happy ending, yet brought his story to life with such facility and empathy that things were never the same again, in literature or in England. The tale is timeless, and Theatre Southwest's telling, under David Holloway's direction, is eminently watchable. Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic work plays Fridays and Saturdays through November 12, with a Sunday matinee October 30, at Theatre Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest. Buy tickets online at www.theatresouthwest.org or call 713-661-9505.