Maryknoll Center Performers Have a Ball With ‘Oliver Twist’

When the actor playing Oliver Twist made her final exit at Wat Than, leading the cast out of the theater in single file, the boys and girls who had created this performance fell back into their usual roles: themselves.

“I was so nervous, nervous and excited!” said Hok Chhaya, 19, who played the title character in “Oliver Twist,” the classic Charles Dickens story. Her simple costume still in place, she hugged friends and gave warm smiles as the audience milled outside the theater after the production.

It had been her first performance, but she took to it with passion, crying in the scenes where Oliver, a street child fighting to make it on his own, is beaten by adults, and grinning widely when he finds a home of his own.

None of the students at the Mary­­knoll Wat Than Skills Train­ing Center came to this place with theater on their minds. This is where victims of polio and land mine accidents come to learn skills that will help them become self-sufficient.

But it was in their English class that the students began acting out small scenes from the reading material, a condensed version of Oliver Twist, and teacher Martin Brown saw the potential for something more.

After two months of practice, the students found themselves on Saturday facing an audience of about 70 people at Wat Than and wearing costumes styled after those worn in Victorian England.

The play was performed with char­ming passion, if not precision. An actor’s mistake at one point led to on-stage giggling between three actors. The audience soon joined in.

The props were as real as possible, including a live infant, Daisy Khiev, who portrayed baby Oliver. Other props were invented: In one scene, Oliver’s friends steal a hand phone from the pocket of an unsuspecting customer at a London bookstore.

The costumes were a hodge-podge of things borrowed from the Phnom Penh Players, an ex-patriate theater group, items bought at the market and still others borrowed from friends. The script followed the condensed version of the play.

“Like everything about this production, it was improvised,” Brown said.

Chea Sophea, a 20-year-old student who played no less than four characters, said he thought it was a “good idea” to stage the production.

One of his characters, a sneaky pickpocket who combs the streets of London looking for victims, wore a striped suit coat.

“I got it from my sister,” he said.

Self-reliance is one of the key lessons at the Maryknoll center, where the students study business, English and computer skills to help them find jobs even as they adapt to a life without the full use of their bodies.

“I think we had fun, you know, with love and encouragement to make them feel comfortable,” said Kim Mom, director of the Maryknoll Center.

Hidden in the frolic of the student play was the lesson that the students could accomplish anything they set out to do, she said.

That’s the attitude the students carry with them when they leave the center and head out into the real world in search of a vocation.

The center helps where it can, using its Business Advisory Council to stay in touch with local businesses and encourage them to consider hiring its graduates.

“We ask them to give us opportunity, not charity,” said Kim Mom. If kids are given a chance they can make a lot of it, she said.

“I want to be a manager of a company,” Hok Chhaya said.

“See, now you have a dream!” Kim Mom said. “When I asked them a year ago, the students didn’t have a dream. Now they have a dream!”

Standing nearby, Nov Vannak, wearing the black face paint that had made him a bearded En­glish­man, laughed with two friends about his costume, enjoying his moments of fame.


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