Oliver Twist at PICT Classic: Few holds are barred in Dickens’ portrayal of the vicious cycle of poverty and cruelty.

By Michelle Pilecki, Pittsburgh City Paper

Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons.

Serendipitously, PICT Classic Theatre’s production of Oliver Twist reflects the controversy of Pope Francis’ stern comments on the meaning and celebrations of Christmas. No froth or frivolity, Twist slams into the travails of the poor and less fortunate, while their “betters” (as His Holiness also notes) carelessly demean — or even increase — their suffering.

PICT artistic and executive director Alan Stanford helms his own adaptation (produced in 2000 by Dublin’s Gate Theatre) of Charles Dickens’ 1837 classic in its U.S. premiere. While the very worst happens off-stage, few holds are barred in this portrayal of the vicious cycle of poverty and cruelty. Yes, there’s a happy ending (for some), but it has a deus ex machina veneer that, certainly, even Dickens couldn’t swallow.

Stanford’s Twist is a massive show on a spare set with a huge cast of remarkable actors spanning many decades. In the demanding title role, Will Sendera packs a punchy personality into his diminutive frame. His eight or so contemporaries (“child actor” is such a put-down) likewise deliver rich, nuanced performances as workhouse inmates, thieves, gang members, street-walkers, etc., mostly in multiple roles.

But the real stunner is Karen Baum, propelling her inner urchin into a much-sinned-against woman who attains a moral triumph of self-revelation and self-sacrifice. Her Nancy is definitely the heroine of the tale (“a story of redemption” is how Stanford describes it). Opposite her, Tony Bingham perfectly slithers into the role of the sociopathic Bill Sykes.

James FitzGerald oozes rapacity and mendacity as Fagin. Ken Bolden credibly recreates a trio of Dickensian types, and David Cabot is wonderfully bombastic as Mr. Bumble. As his paramour and partner in parochial persecution of the poor waifs, Bridget Connors is appropriately smarmy. Martin Giles is best when his good-guy Mr. Brownlow pontificates on the ills of society and hypocrisy of the times.

While there is much that is depressing in Oliver Twist, there are the occasional chuckles (look for sly references to other Dickensianisms) and the cry for charity. Which is what the holiday season is really about, right?

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