By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
A looming ladder forms the centerpiece of Kurt Boetcher’s set, creating both visual and allegorical focus on the social tiers that comprise so much of Dickens’ indignation. Bartlett’s adaptation rolls through the novel by capturing the chapter’s essences in dialogues and scenes; though as taut as can be imagined, structurally, it follows a log cascade down a river, bumping into rocks and boulders along its path. This play is more about those collisions than the novel’s epic sweep, probably because narrative theater is strongest when characters are clashing. The lingering force of Dickens’ novel, however — as in Tan’s The Joy Luck Club — lies in the way the scenes slide up against each other, the way they accumulate. Through those juxtapositions, a view of society emerges. This view is in the plays, but, this being theater with living actors rather than words on a page, the characters dominate the broader vision even when they’re cartoons, such as Fagin (the excellent Tom Fitzpatrick) or Mrs. Sowerberry (Geoff Elliott). This elegantly wrought production is about moments, and Dickens’ novel is larger than that.
Tan’s novel, set in 1980s San Francisco, is a tapestry of four matriarchs from feudal China, and their American daughters. The study of each parent sends the action rolling back in time via flashbacks. Multiply that by four, and you’ve got a structure completely at odds with the theater’s dramatic essences.
John H. Binkley’s set features what looks like a parchment scroll suspended on one side, with the parchment rolling down to the stage floor and back up on the other side. So the actors play out their various crises on the stuff of literature beneath their feet, which is a lovely idea in Jon Lawrence Rivera’s production. He too employs music, with actors playing recorder and percussion behind entire scenes. It provides atmosphere that mostly enhances the action and occasionally suffocates it.
The dynamics between the mothers and daughters are tenderly rendered with a penetrating authenticity, and Rivera uses every fiber of his intellect to keep the story threads from fraying. He even projects the names of characters and chapter titles onto the set — providing theater’s equivalent of road signs. But the characters, made large by the actors’ talents and sensitivities, overwhelm the cultural and generational divides they represent. Trying to contain Tan’s epic sweep in the theater is like trying to catch the wind with a sieve.
CHARLES DICKENS’ OLIVER TWIST | Adapted by NEIL BARTLETT from the novel by CHARLES DICKENS | A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | In rep, through Dec. 14. | (818) 240-0910, ext. 1, or www.anoisewithin.org
THE JOY LUCK CLUB | Adapted by SUSAN KIM from the novel by AMY TAN | Presented by EAST WEST PLAYERS at the DAVID HENRY HWANG THEATER, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo | Through Dec. 21 | (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org