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Shakespeare Theatre Stages Dickens' "Oliver" -- with a Twist

Shakespeare Theatre Stages Dickens' "Oliver" -- with a Twist

One director, Two acts, 13 actors, 35 scenes, 50 characters, 100 costume changes

This is the challenge at the feet of the cast and crew of Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of "Oliver Twist" at Madison’s Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

When you go, don’t expect to hear bouncy renditions of "Consider Yourself" or "I’d Do Anything." The roughly two-hour dramatization, which requires a tight ensemble to sweep through a parade of roles, is Charles Dickens at his sooty best.

The theater has a celebrated history of reinvigorating the classics and this production is up to the challenge. An orphan’s search for love and family amidst the brutality of Victorian England's Industrial Age is a fitting tale for the theater's 50th anniversary season, titled "The Art of Impossible Dreams." Jersey Arts’ Robert Carr sat down with director Brian B. Crowe and actor Jeffrey M. Bender (who plays six roles, including the menacing Bill Sikes and even Mrs. Sowerberry) to chat about the demands, rewards and complexities of presenting this masterwork.

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JA: What challenges does a show with multiple characters present for you as an actor?

Jeffrey M. Bender: Well, first thing off the top of my head is the physicality of a character and voice of a character. It's never been an issue of memorization of lines. It's in rehearsals, coming up with different ways to portray a certain character. Today we found something new, which is a lot of fun. … It's still morphing into something. The challenge for me is to find something that seems to work for each character and is grounded in the text as well. And I’ve always struggled with that because I've always just tried to throw something out there that's physical … and then I go back to the text and realize, well, that doesn't quite work. So I have to change that.

JA: How does a show where you're playing multiple characters differ in the preparation, compared to when you play just one role?

JB: If I know ahead of time what our schedule is for the next day, I'll try to work on that character. If I'm only working on one character for the next day, I try to work on that character the night before. Just kind of get some ideas in my head and … going off the seat of my pants and finding what comes spontaneously. It's always been the way I work. And then, especially with Brian, it's fun for him to give me a second eye to say, well, let's try this with that, and it kind of builds — or it can change.

JA: What is it about how Dickens wrote the characters, or the way that Bartlett adapted the story, that lends itself to this preparation?

JB: Neil Bartlett also did an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" that was done here as well. And it's very much of an ensemble piece, and he writes it so that there's a constant motion of characters coming on stage, coming off stage. … And with Dickens and his descriptive way of writing, I mean, he was paid by the word. … So the words that he uses to describe these characters, plus the setting of the scene for "Oliver Twist" — Neil Bartlett was able to pull such wonderful images out of there and condense it from what was basically a paragraph into one sentence. It seems to me that lent itself to (interacting) with characters in a more ensemble way. It just seems like Neil Bartlett was able to condense "Oliver Twist" down to its principal ideas and create these characters from what Dickens was trying to do as well.

Brian B. Crowe: What's been really great is this group of actors are the type of actors I like to work with. They're fearless. They're just going to jump — jump off the high dive not knowing if there's any water in the pool to see what can be created. But they're also great researchers and readers. Every single person in the cast throughout the process has gone back to the original material. So every time we get to a scene, they know what the entire Dickens version of that scene is and how that maps out.

JA: Brian, how do you prepare as a director, doing a show with actors playing multiple characters as opposed to actors playing a single character?

BC: It doesn't change that much for my work, only in the fact that, other than maybe one show I can think of, all the shows I've been doing over the last several years have been larger verse plays, mostly Shakespeare. So in that case, we're usually doubling characters. Your primary characters don't double. There's a lot more doubling within the primary characters here. Where it became really tricky is tracking every single actor from the beginning — who I needed in what scene, who could be in what scene — or who couldn't because they had a costume change to get to the next scene. Tracking that giant Rubik's cube … continued to evolve while we're in the rehearsal room. That was the hardest thing to lay out, to the point that I literally had to lay out everyone's headshot for every scene of the play to go, okay, those are the people in that scene. Who can be in the next scene? There's another sheet of paper — my tracking sheet. Every single scene has a headshot page. Who's in it? Who can't be in it? And who are principal characters and who are support characters? That was the most complicated thing.

JA: What kind of support do you need backstage to juggle that?

BC: What's interesting is in the design approach to this show, we've tried to keep it as streamlined as possible. So singular props, for the most part, will change characters, which is great. We have one wardrobe person and we have two stage managers on deck, assistant stage managers backstage, one of whom is in costume to come on to shift on occasion and that's it. Everything else is the actors.

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JA: What kind of casting dilemma does this present?

BC: Well, anytime you've got actors having to double, triple, quadruple roles … you need to cast someone who can do — using Jeff as an example — the brutality of Bill Sikes and the coldness and that sense that emanates from him just from the second he walks in the room. Then to contrast that with someone like Mrs. Sowerberry, who is this gothic vixen of a woman. That's pretty tricky. Finding somebody who can do both of those, and then the nine or 10 other things that need to be done for the show. … People that can do the depth of the richness of the work that I think is in this script and certainly in the book of the characters. That's challenging. Oh, and this show's also challenging because everyone has to be able to sing. It's not a musical. … And also several of them have to play musical instruments live on stage. So there's that — but it's not a musical.

JA: What do you think is the greatest thrill for the audience?

BC: What I love about this script and this ensemble and the way the design has been approached is that it doesn't feel thin. It doesn't feel like you're just watching the Reader's Digest version of the scene or a class project version where here’s a bunch of two-people scenes that tell the entire story. So I think from an audience's point of view, seeing the richness of this world with this size company, which is not overly large but is quite massive for the space the way it's staged. But also I think it's going to be exciting to the audience to find out things they didn't know about the show.

"Oliver Twist" plays the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey from Sept. 12 through Oct. 7. Note: Photos above are of a previous production, "Accidental Death of An Anarchist" (2011), featuring Jeffrey Bender and Kevin Isola.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Seward Johnson, Sculptor & Founder, Grounds for Sculpture

Seward Johnson, Sculptor & Founder, Grounds for Sculpture