Twisted Olivia

Local Arts Reviews


Twisted Olivia: Wonders Where You Least Expect Them

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Whisenhunt Arena Stage, through March 9

Running Time: 1 hr, 50 min

You don't expect a baseball cap to have personality. After all, what is it besides a dome of fabric and a bill? But when that cap is perched on the hand of Everett Quinton, it develops an attitude, a cocky tilt. It grows sneaky, turning from side to side with a distinctive stealth, that bill dipping with furtive purpose. Watch it for a time, and, unlikely as it seems, you accept that the cap is -- or at least crowns the unseen brow of -- one of the most successful pickpockets in all of London.

You don't expect character in sports headgear, but then you don't expect a New York drag queen to transport you into a 19th-century English novel, and that's precisely what happens in Twisted Olivia: A Meditation on Oliver Twist. In this new solo show, receiving its world premiere at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Quinton plays the titular Olivia, a genial gent in capri pants and silver eye shadow who presides over a realm of thrift-sale treasures; her compact, multilevel home -- realized by Heyd Fontenot with the quirky charm of its mistress -- is stuffed with hat boxes, trophies, rolls of fabric, busts of Lincoln, dolls, antique portraits, and more. Olivia is preparing to go out when she happens on a copy of Oliver Twist, an old favorite of hers, and is drawn to begin reading it again. Before you can say, "Please, sir, I want some more," her scarf and wig are off and she's living Dickens' story for us, using the flotsam and jetsam that clutter her "old store" to tell the tale: A blue boa dresses her as Oliver's friend Nancy; an oven mitt stands in for Bill Sikes' vicious hound; a pair of dolls become the confirmed bachelors Mr. Bittles and Mr. Giles; a toilet is the River Thames.

If it sounds ridiculous, well, it is. The work is in the tradition of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre Company, which gave us The Mystery of Irma Vep, among other glories of theatrical foolery. Ludlam made an art of mocking the melodramatic excesses of Victorian literature, presenting its extravagant characters and overheated emotions, grand villainies and spectacular coincidences, so baldly and boldly as to make us howl. But that which Ludlam ridiculed he also loved, and so his swooning heroines and dastardly fiends had more substance than most pale parodies. Their stories, however far-fetched or absurd, were absorbing. Even as you stood outside laughing at them, you were drawn into the tale with them.

So it is with Oliver Twist and company in Twisted Olivia. Quinton and his director and friend Eureka are veterans of the Ridiculous Theatre Company -- Quinton co-starred with Ludlam in Irma Vep and succeeded him as artistic director following Ludlam's early death in 1987 -- and they certainly bring to this work a masterful sense of comedy, both in the playing of those weird, wonderful Dickensian characters and their -- gasp! -- life-or-death dilemmas and in the methods they use to portray them. But they also grasp the emotional power at the heart of this material and so infuse this story with a genuine urgency. And Quinton's clean and controlled performance gives its figures breath and bone.

You may not expect to be alternately laughing and spellbound by a stage version of Oliver Twist, but there you are. Quinton puts us on a pendulum, swinging to and fro, one minute doubling us over as his Fagin -- his restless fingers ever wiggling -- makes what is perhaps the most disgusting cup of tea ever brewed on a stage and savors every filthy drop; the next drawing us forward, eyes wide and jaw slack, as his Oliver steals into a sleeping household (the soft blue illumination by designer Brian Scott and lonesome chiming clock from sound designer Allen Robertson beautifully setting the scene). Despite the limitation of being alone on stage, Quinton makes the scenes of physical conflict alive with tension: When Bill threatens Oliver, Quinton grabs himself by his jacket collar and lifts himself up; when Bill murders Nancy, the actor switches between figures in a riveting display that sacrifices none of the scene's grim horror.

You don't expect all this, but then people didn't expect much of Oliver Twist -- or Olivia either, given what she tells us. But we see Oliver stand up for himself and survive London's mean streets to be named heir to a fortune. And we see Olivia turn into a vision of glamour. One lesson here is that wonders can appear where one least expects them, especially if generosity is involved. At one point, Olivia speaks of people who were generous to her when she was working the streets, how they saved her from who knows what dangers. It's a moment that unites the stories of Olivia and Oliver, but it also reminds us that need exists outside the pages of a book, and the simplest gesture toward another can make all the difference in a life.

Clearly, Everett Quinton understands Victorian literature and how to get a laugh, but Twisted Olivia reveals that he is no less understanding of the profound power of generosity. How fortunate we are to be on the receiving end of this remarkable gift.

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Twisted Olivia, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, Everett Quinton, Eureka, Heyd Fontenot, Allen Robertson, Brian Scott

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