There are few plays that can smoothly transition a novel to the stage without sacrificing enjoyable theatricality in order to remain true to the original prose. Leave it to the Village Playhouse to tackle just such a challenge in mounting Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, the historic novel by Charles Dickens.
If you don’t know the story of young Oliver, don’t worry. The play covers the entire saga of his life. Born into poverty and squalor near London in 1837, Oliver (played with genuine and touching vulnerability by young Jacob Hallex) lives in an orphanage until one day, at dinner, he asks his famous question (“Please sir, may I have some more?”) and is auctioned off to the highest bidder. Escaping to London, he runs into the enchanting Artful Dodger, who introduces him to his band of child thieves.
It is at this point in the Village’s production that the play actually finds its footing and becomes an enjoyable romp through the rest of Dickens’ tale about the trials of young master Twist. Not that the early scenes of the play are bad, they’re just too confusing. Should we be laughing or not? Robbie Thomas and Noah Smith playing women — funny, but why? It’s not until halfway through the first act that the play lands on a comfortable and believable balance between reality and comedic farce.
It is also at this point that the play’s two best performances come to light. Jimmy Flannery plays Fagin, the leader of the den of thieves that Oliver joins. Flannery dives headlong into Fagin with an almost obscene level of commitment. He is creepy and dominating, but possessing a clear and present level of fear and shame which makes the villian almost relatable. Flannery plays Fagin as a man on the edge of society and on the edge of a breakdown that has found (or perhaps created, in his mind) the nobility in both. His command of the stage is impressive, and his final scene, in which he laments his life while awaiting the gallows, can send shivers down the spine.
As good as Flannery is, however, the breakout star of the show is Young Stowe, a College of Charleston freshman who plays the Artful Dodger. Stowe doesn’t just steal scenes, he annexes them. His comfort on stage draws the eye. His subtle but appropriately styled performance holds it. His moments of direct conversation with the audience (awkward and unnecessary everywhere else in the play) are natural. I almost didn’t mind that he was reading Oliver Twist to me during a play about Oliver Twist, though some may find this framing device too charming.
Keely Enright, who directed the piece, deserves incredible recognition for also serving as set designer. And what a set it is. The deceptively simple box that houses the majority of the action unveils its secrets over the course of the show (which runs about two hours with one 10-minute intermission). The set features wall panels that come apart to become tables, hidden compartments that contain props, a painting scheme that works no matter where the action of the play takes us, and more entrances and exits than you’ll be able to keep up with. Too bad the light design isn’t up to the level of the set. I constantly found myself needing more light on the action of the scene.
This production of Oliver Twist ends up feeling a lot like the titular orphan himself. While jagged around the edges and in need of some polish, it is charming enough to both enchant and entertain.