When you were a child you played make-believe games. The scenario could have involved anything—a space battle, a trek through the wilderness, a carriage ride into a bustling London marketplace. The floor turned to hot lava. The garden wall became a prison from which to break out. Household dogs were wild wolves. A cluster of old trees, your home. And parents? Many of us love our parents dearly, but you can't be a protagonist in your own adventure if you have to follow some dumb old rules. You obviously can't face off with villains when you're already protected. So, in your daydreams, you became an orphan and left to find your way in the world alone.
As it turns out, orphan literature is a real category for this very reason. Huck Finn, Harry Potter, James (and the Giant Peach), Bruce Wayne, the Little Princess, Mary Lennox in her secret garden, Cinderella, Little Orphan Annie, every would-be kung fu master—all these characters had to be brave without parental guidance and usually in the face of uncaring and cruel authority figures who, fortunately, always got their comeuppance.
My favorite of all orphan stories remains Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The boy is bounced from workhouse to mortuary, from band of thieves to violent offenders, and is rarely given reprieve from the dark underbelly of life. Plus, we're talking about life at the turn of the 20th century, in industrial London. Orphans at the time were as common as rats, and treated no kinder. What better environment to test your greatness?
Oliver himself isn't even the best part of Oliver. It's the gang of pickpockets Oliver holes up with—led by the thief with a heart of gold, Fagin—that makes the gritty lifestyle alluring. Maybe I was a weird child, but make-believing you are an orphan who has the skills to snatch jewelry off unwitting adults and who lives in a bunkhouse with a bunch of other kids was the ultimate role play. And the fact that there was a musical, Oliver!—I listened to it on the record player—only glamorized the whole ordeal because the characters were always breaking into song. Playing a crafty ragamuffin is always more fun when you can sing in a cockney accent, like the Artful Dodger, "Consider yourself, one of us! Consider yourself, part of the family."
The upcoming production of Oliver! from the Whitefish Theatre Company is adding one more seductive element to the story: steampunk. There's still an air of London's industrial revolution, but as if in a parallel universe that might have been created by Tim Burton, the Hell's Angels and Crass. Recycled leather, metal, gratuitous pockets and zippers, art nouveau patterns and old-fashioned pilot goggles give more conventional knickers and double-breasted suits a retro-future feel. The creators of this production include costume designer Lonnie Porro and director Rebecca Schaffer, who's known for her experimental work with Missoula's Viscosity Theatre.
"I started thinking about steampunk theatrically when I saw a production of Cinderella at the Arden Theatre," Schaffer tells me. "I know it's been around for a long time but I think suddenly everybody's doing it now. And, for Oliver! it makes sense because Oliver Twist was written right at the tail end of the industrial revolution, so it's the proper time. It's the proper place. And the industrial revolution is the last time we experienced such rapid-fire technological change and now we're going through a digital revolution."
The steampunk quality adds a little more visual edginess to a story that is already profoundly dark. But there's a fantastical feel to steampunk, too, which gets at the heart of why the story of Oliver isn't a downer for kids.
"There's an inherent theatricality in the script," Schaffer says. "And then you take the idea that this is seen through Oliver's eyes. He's a child, and when you're a child everything is magical because you're experiencing these things for the first time. And that's part of that larger-than-life element that the steampunk brings."
Adults get a bad rap for losing their sense of wonder, but how can you not? There is no romance to violence or being orphaned, nothing to embrace in an unloving society. If you have children of your own, you know this with terrifying sharpness. Kids don't know that yet, though. They just know that if you have to fight for survival, you might as well do it in style, and while singing.
Whitefish Theatre Co.'s Oliver! opens at the O'Shaughnessy Center with a sneak preview Thu., Dec., 5 at 7:30 PM, $10 at the door. It continues each Fri. and Sat. Dec. 6, 7, 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 7:30 PM, with Sun. matinees Dec. 8, 15 and 22 at 4 PM. $20/$18 seniors/$8 students, at the box office or online at whitefishtheatreco.org.