“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens has been a staple of western literature since its publication in 1859, and has been adapted many times over—as movies, television mini-series, radio shows, a short-lived Broadway musical, and plays. Writer Mike Poulton’s new play adaptation premiered at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northhampton, England in 2014 and is now in its US premiere at A Noise Within in Pasadena.
A Noise Within is a celebrated repertory theater company, and A Tale of Two Cities kicks off their 2017-2018 season, the theme of which is “entertaining courage.” For those unfamiliar with or in need of a refresher on Dickens’s novel, the story unfolds in both London and Paris between the years of roughly 1780 to 1789, ending during the beginnings of the French Revolution. Dr. Manette (Nicholas Hormann), an English aristocrat, is released from prison after serving 18 years for speaking out against the wrong influential people, and builds a new life with his daughter, Lucie (Emily Goss), whom he had never met. While Dr. Manette is ill, they are assisted by Charles Darnay (Tavis Doucette), a Frenchman trying to distance himself from a past and family he is ashamed of. When Charles is accused of treason, he gets off the hook thanks to an uncanny resemblance between himself and Sydney Carton (Frederick Stuart), a frequently drunk court barrister. As a result of this coincidence, the two men’s lives become intertwined, and they both fall for Lucie. Charles and Lucie marry, but things grow complicated once again when Charles is arrested and sentenced to death based on revengeful accusations by Madame Defarge (Abby Craden), a French revolutionary whose siblings were killed by Charles’s wealthy father and uncle years ago. Charles is sentenced to death, but Sydney comes up with a plan to take his place at the guillotine, saving his beloved Lucie the heartbreak of losing her husband.
The plot is dense and layered, and Poulton’s adaptation, directed here by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, seeks to streamline the action, resulting in a show that runs just over two hours. Some minor changes are definitely made for the sake of time and clarity—the play begins with Charles Darnay’s first trial, skipping over the first of three “books” that comprise Dickens’s novel and much of the backstory of the Manettes. Fewer years seem to pass overall, and by the end of the play Lucie is pregnant for the first time, whereas by that point in the novel she has given birth to two children.
Everything about the production is first-rate. Lovely original music by Robert Oriol scores the transitions between scenes, and the ensemble briefly sings a few times, a choice that feels a bit random but injects some liveliness nonetheless. The costumes (Jenny Foldenauer) were stunning and the direction tight and precise, utilizing not only the stage but the aisles of the house to accommodate the large cast of 23. There are many clever design elements to indicate location and passage of time, including projections, sheets draped over pieces of furniture with places or dates printed upon them, and, at the beginning, a moment of narration from the cast. While all of the above were helpful, it felt a bit indecisive and scattered.
The condensed nature of this adaptation assumes a base knowledge of the source material—certain characters and dynamics feel a bit skimmed over; for example, Madame Defarge and her husband (Kasey Mahaffy) barely appear in act one, only to be pivotal at the climax. Generally, a lot of time is devoted to the ins and outs of Charles’s numerous legal troubles. This feels like the Law & Order of A Tale of Two Cities, spending extended scenes living in tribunals and court rooms. As a result, less energy is spent building the character relationships, which is not entirely detrimental if the audience is already familiar with the story. Not much real estate is given to the central love triangle, and I wanted much more of Sydney Carton and particularly his interactions with Lucie. While in the novel he also professes his love and Lucie actively chooses to marry Charles instead, here he mostly pines from afar. It does not help that Lucie’s daughter who bears her name does not exist here, eliminating the inclusion of scenes where Sydney bonded with the child.
Despite what felt like a puzzling lack of stage time, which was particularly disappointing given that Stuart is the standout of the cast, Sydney’s ultimate sacrifice still packs a powerful punch thanks to not only how well-known a scene it is, but to some clever staging involving a movable staircase and a projected, animated guillotine. The most daring choice in this production also comes in these final moments. In Dickens’s novel and in most adaptations, Sydney meets a young woman, originally described as 20 years old, whom he bonds with in his final minutes before they are both executed. Here, that role is played by a child actress who looked to be about 10 years old. While it is hard to say if it actually worked from a narrative perspective, it definitely delivered an additional gut-punch, as well as a surprise in a scene where everyone usually knows what to expect. There is also a bit of suspension of disbelief required in general—while the actors playing Charles and Sydney do not look entirely dissimilar, to believe they are as identical as the plot requires is a bit of a stretch, and one that would be far easier to pull off with the helpful post-production magic of television and film. Overall, this is an interesting, politically-charged take on a classic story that should entertain both fans of the source material and casual viewers alike.
A Tale of Two Cities runs through November 19th. As the production will be presented in repertory along with The Madwoman of Chaillot and Mrs. Warren’s Profession, the performance schedule is limited and can be found here. The running time is two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.