“Oliver Twist” at Park Square Theatre

Fagin (Steve Hendrickson) and Oliver Twist (Noah Coon)

St. Paul’s Park Square Theatre has included a Victorian era piece in recent seasons and continues this season with an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist by Neil Barlett. Joel Sass, the Jungle Theater’s associate artistic director was coaxed across the river to design and direct this one. It was a good call for Park Square.

Sass was free to implement a cohesive vision for the production top to bottom that worked well in the space and with this adaptation – and it was rather nice to see a period piece set in the proper period.

The small, unit set crowded with functioning props supported the sense of the characters’ wretched lives – literally and figuratively lived underground, but for their forays into the streets to pillage the unsuspecting moneyed classes. Set painting to makeup, visual elements were just extreme enough to lend a grotesque cartoon quality to it, turning violence and cruelty into fairy tale-like violence and cruelty.

The convention of presentational scenes alternating with direct address to the audience (in character) reinforced the fact that Dickens’ book is primarily sentimental, teaches a moral lesson and must end well for our young hero.

And it all works. Stephen Cartmell is as artful a Dodger as you’ll ever see, Noah Coon as Oliver is convincingly adorable, and Steve Hendrickson plays the slippery Fagin with crusty composure. There are many other fine individual performances, but the success of this production is more in its ensemble work, with several actors playing multiple roles; setting up new scenes with the a board, a bench, a chair; and supplying the live, acoustic sound effects via instruments and traps dangling from the ceiling or whisked through the over-large doorways positioned left, right, and upstage. These devices provided constant visual interest, distraction at the proper moments, a seamless flow from scene to scene (there are 24) and the pure fun of watching 13 polished performers pull off dozens of characters and locales using good old creative dramatics techniques and not much else. And they all sing.

This is lively entertainment, done with spirit and finesse, and appropriate for most ages. (Yes, there is a hanging, but in keeping with the style of the production, the riggings are obvious.) Oliver Twist runs through November 6. Recommended!

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