It is about time that someone picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the Royal Shakespeare Company and their legendary, eight-and-a-half-hour, two-part production of Nicholas Nickleby. And thank God it was the Culture Project, a group that is becoming increasingly well-known for its literary adaptations for the stage. With their five-hour, two-part production of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, they not only picked up that daunting gauntlet, they hoisted it over their heads with the ease, grace and humility of genuine champions.
As adapted and directed by Will Pomerantz, this A Tale of Two Cities was an intensely personal experience. Though less ebulliently theatrical in its story-telling than the RSC's Nickleby, it is more immediate and direct. Using little more than logic and common sense, Pomerantz shines a bold clear light into the dusty corners of Dickens's over-familiar classic, and suddenly everything in the convoluted, coincidence-ridden plot not only makes sense, but seems fresh with the wonder of discovery.
Telling Dickens's sweeping tale of love, obsession, revenge, and sacrifice during the terror of the French Revolution with a parsimonious intelligence, the drama unfolded swiftly in scene after scene of ravishing visual imagery that enhanced and enriched the tersely written dialogue. The simplicity was astonishing, the cumulative effect evoking true epic grandeur as the two distinct parts built and fed on each other to finally merge into one indivisibly unique and moving theatrical event.
With exquisitely detailed touches throughout, the gorgeous production created and sustained an atmosphere of 18th-century France and England in a way that was visceral and real, each successive coup de théâtre stunning in its sheer creativity at the service of the impeccable dramaturgy. In one typical scene, Pomerantz, with the help of his brilliantly resourceful design team (sets by Troy Hourie and lighting by Allen Hahn doing very much with very little, and lavish period costumes by Moira Shaughnessy) effectively delineated the chasm that existed between the aristocrats and the impoverished citizens with nothing more than the pull of a curtain and a change in color scheme and costume materials. The stark contrast from the design of each preceding scene was a jolt that captured every nuance of a world on the brink of political and social disaster. And the handling of the deaths at the guillotine was gut-wrenching without being explicit or gory. Adding immeasurably to the overall success was the superb sound design by David Earle, particularly in his use of period, minimalist and occasional modern jazz to musically underscore the action with surprising accuracy.
Heading the large cast as the dissolute, melancholy Sydney Carton, Greg McFadden was mesmerizing in a multi-layered performance of heartbreaking power. Dark and brooding, his Carton walked defiantly into the void with an aching, restive nobility that infused and empowered every other member of the top-notch ensemble. Rebecca Wisocky, as the obsessively vengeful Madame Defarge, was riveting in a performance of intense, controlled rage. Her smoky, French-accented voice, her insolent, piercing gaze, and her haunted, feral expression gave a sense of palpably rising tension with each well-timed click of her knitting needles. Michael Pemberton was equally as riveting as the benign banker, Jarvis Lorry. A warm glowing presence, he balanced Wisocky's insinuating evil with a sympathetic lightness of soul, his scenes with Juliet Pritner, delightful as Miss Pross, resonating with a playful sexuality that was as unexpected as it was welcome.
As Lucy Manette and Charles Darnay, the couple at the eye of the storm, Tertia Lynch and Tony Finn offered finely drawn portraits that effortlessly found the humanity in characters that are essentially less interesting than the more vividly drawn personalities raging around them. Yusef Bulos gave a touching, bewildered air to the long incarcerated Dr. Manette, his lengthy discourse on the cause of his imprisonment simple, direct, and shattering. Toby Wherry as the loquacious Jerry Cruncher, Tim McGee as the conscience-stricken Monsieur Defarge, Ted de Chatelet as the vacillating turncoat John Barsad, and Bradford Olsen as the upwardly mobile solicitor Stryver all lent solid support with characterizations that were notably individual, well-thought-out, and generously performed. And Zakia Babb, as Little Lucie, was natural, appealing, and refreshingly free of child-actor pretension.
The supporting players were all flawless in the many roles they played. The ever-dependable Mark Rimer, impressive last season in Monster[less] Actors' Woyzeck, once again put his commanding presence and rich voice to good use. He was particularly outstanding as the prissy, prancing Marquis d'Evremonde, a performance at once savage, funny, and terrifying. Alison Easter also used her natural presence well, her gleefully malicious La Vengeance a perfectly drawn caricature of the natural-born follower. Sarah Boughton likewise impressed with her tender reading of the seamstress who goes bravely to her death with the help of Carton. Edwin Lee Gibson and Doug Lockwood were moving as hapless victims of the aristocracy and the revolutionaries, respectively, and Corey Stoll matched Rimer smirk for smirk as Evremonde's equally heinous older brother. Gary Brownlee and Peter Williamson were hilarious without saying anything as two ancient bank clerks, and last, but not least, David Wells changed personae, accents and even physicality with chameleon-like charm.
Pulsating with vibrant life, The Culture Project's A Tale of Two Cities defies categorization to become a piece of pure theatre that enchants and excites on its own terms. Sadly, the economics dictated by so large a cast and a questionable broad appeal may preclude the possibility of a much-deserved extended run. But for the privileged few lucky enough to experience the thrilling joy of this production, the memories will resonate long after the final, chilling fall of the guillotine blade.
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita