American Repertory Company, Cambridge. Neil Bartlett, adapter. Directed by Bartlett; his London Hammersmith production, freshly cast with ART actors. First performance February 17, 2007.
A fine, charming representation of this highly theatrical Dickens novel, expressly adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett, who has a very fine stage sense and, in this instance, an equally well-tuned notion of the differences between novel and play. Instead of trying to pretend that those differences do not exist, Bartlett makes the most of them, in frank terms. All the dialogue is taken directly from the novel, either from words spoken by the characters or words “spoken” by the narrator, Dickens’s deeply involved persona. One of the actors plays the narrator initially, and after that intermittently, and he speaks in an American accent, holding in his hand what looks like an Everyman edition of the novel, complete with cloth ribbon bookmark: a nice note of authenticity. Some of the dialogue and some of the narration is sung, in solo or, more frequently, in mixed chorus. And these actors are as good at singing as they are at acting — which is to say, very, very good.
The setting, a ramshackle dwelling with a pitched roof, open at its fourth wall to the audience’s view, with an amazing number of trapdoors and other narrow exit doors, and a back wall that opens out, that is, up stage, in shorter fashion, to reveal a blank indefinite area: effectively, a cyclorama. There are steps down from the downstage side of it to the stage floor. The floor of the structure is perhaps three feet above the stage floor itself, allowing for good usable space below the traps. In other words, what we see has the look simultaneously of a slum dwelling in East London and a small-town theatre somewhere in the provinces.
The actors have evidently spent much time rehearsing on, and in, this structure, and they are perfect in their parts. Michael Wartella is a standout as Oliver; he looks fourteen, though in fact his bio seems to make him an adult, with experience playing Laertes, among other parts. The ensemble is seamlessly good, and the style of performance is a nice accommodation of Victorian melodramatic acting to a more modern realistic idiom. It is a sheer delight from beginning to end, and we could not understand why the house was not even half-full.