-By Bob Satuloff

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Even before Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations was greenlighted by Fox, another New York-set, contemporary version of a Charles Dickens classic was making its way around gay film festivals from New York, Chicago, and Boston to London, Sydney and Turin. Boasting a confidence-inspiring cast of seasoned Broadway actors that belies its less than $80,000 budget, debuting writer/director Seth Michael Donsky's Twisted imaginatively plucks Oliver Twist from the back alleys of Victorian London, setting it down in a stylized, sinister, late-20th-century Manhattan that's a virtual hotbed of gay criminality.

Rechristened Lee (Keiven McNeil Graves), Dickens's title character has been reconfigured as a black youngster who's been abandoned by his drug-addicted mother to the tangled bureaucracy of the child-welfare system. After running away, the boy is unofficially adopted by Can Man (Ray Aranha), a gentle, homeless street preacher who works Times Square; but when Can Man is set upon by street toughs and killed, Lee again finds himself alone, but not for long.

This time, however, Lee's savior has an agenda. Fine Art (Jean Loup), Twisted's Artful Dodger, offers the boy food and shelter at what turns out to be the male brothel that's his home and workplace. The ramshackle house is run by the unctuous Andre (William Hickey), the Fagin of the piece. The pair regards Lee as a potential meal ticket who requires careful handling.

Bill Sykes and Nancy are respectively represented by Eddie (Anthony Crivello), a vicious drug dealer and street pimp, and his abused lover Angel (David Norona), an aspiring songwriter who came of age as a denizen of Andre's house. When Angel meets the trusting, vulnerable Lee, the boy so reminds him of his younger self, he determines to do whatever it takes to rescue the boy from the exploitation Andre and Fine Art have in store for him. Abetted by his closest friend, a no-nonsense drag queen named Shiniqua (Billy Porter), Angel puts his own life at risk to give Lee a chance at a decent future.

Despite the limitations of its budget, Twisted manages to evoke Dickens' plot and characters while successfully esablishing a narrative and visual milieu of its own. Donsky, whose background is in the theatre, gives the film a solid structure, reveals a stylist's eye, and draws lively performances from a uniformly colorful cast.

The late Hickey (Prizzi's Honor, Forget Paris) daringly takes his inspiration for Fagin from Bela Lugosi; Crivello (the Broadway musical Kiss of the Spider Woman) makes the vicious Eddie genuinely frightening; Norona (Broadway's Love! Valour! Compassion!) plays Angel as an S&M saint; and Porter (Broadway's Miss Saigon, Smokey Joe's Cafe) has hauteur to spare as the tough but compassionate drag queen. Loup brings lots of style to the supporting role of Fine Art, and Graves (Mo Better Blues, Three Men and a Baby) makes Lee's innocence and intelligence convincing.

With the proper handling and some critical support, there's every reason that Twisted should find an audience. Its literary origins are fascinating, its credentials as a gay film are impeccable, and it's refreshingly free of the taint of political correctness.

--Bob Satuloff

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