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3/17/2024    A TALE OF TWO CITIES        Alliance Theatre



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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.


This is perhaps the most famous opening of any Dickens novel – some would say of any novel.  A series of paradoxical constructs, embodying the oppositional dichotomies of existence, rooted in a history that occurred before Dickens was born, yet weaving a new relevance to Dickens’ readers’ times continuously since its first serialization in 1859.  That skein of history can conceivably be unwound unto the present day, with its January 6 insurrection/protest and our contemporary penchant for demonizing those with whom we disagree -- one of our presidential candidates even promising a “bloodbath” if he loses.


Are we due for an American “Reign of Terror?’


That question is very much on the mind of playwright Brendan Pelsue, who has knitted together a gripping and effective stage adaptation of Dickens’ classic.  Gone is

is the Nicholas Nickleby format, in which a group of actors drop into and out of narrator-mode to tell the original story (more or less) intact, a format seen in Barbara Field’s adaptation of Great Expectations and a version of Tale of Two Cities staged in Harrisburg PA in 1991 (or was it 1992?  Archives are sketchy).  Nothing is wrong with that format and I have fond memories of sitting through all nine hours of Nickleby during its 1987 revival.


Here a “Skein of History” is brought to vivid life as eight actors play all the roles (at least the characters who remain – no sign here of Jeremiah Cruncher or Roger Cly or Miss Pross or Lawyer Stryver or “The Vengeance” or many others).  More to the point, we the audience are cast as “the mob,” encouraged to express mass approval and skepticism and disdain and horror and relief at the urging of a charismatic (and rabble-rousing) Madame Defarge.


This conceit is driven home by many asides that “break the fourth wall” and acknowledge its theatrical underpinnings.  For example, Louis Reyes McWilliams (Charles Darnay) and Lee Osorio (Sydney Carton) look nothing alike, and a pointed comic bit accompanies every reference to them being “twin-like in appearance and bearing.”  At one point, Brad Raymond (whose Louis XVI has just been topped off) is assigned another role and comments “Am I really doing that part?”   Actors in leading roles (Dr. Minette and his daughter Lucie) suddenly don new cloaks for minor characters.  The extraordinary Tess Kincaid doubles as the quintessentially French Madame Defarge and the quintessentially British King George III.  This is a vibrantly busy cast that never loses the clarity of Dickens’ plot or their roles in it.


And, for the record, it is assumed we all know that memorable opening paragraph, so no one here delivers it, but thankfully, Sydney Carton’s equally memorable closing “flash forward” and devastatingly moving “Far Better Thing I Do” guillotine-side pronouncement remain intact and elegantly delivered.


In case you have forgotten the story, we meet Charles Darnay, an immigrant from Farnce, on trial in London for treason, based on the tainted testimony of a “witness for hire.”  He is acquitted thanks to the efforts of his look-alike lawyer, Sydney Carton.  This will not be his final trial.  We also meet the aging Dr. Minette, who has finally been released from the Bastille after eighteen years.  Darnay and Lucie Minette, the doctor’s daughter, fall in love and are married.  Sydney Carton also loves Lucie but quickly realizes his affection for alcohol will keep her forever beyond his reach.


Darnay is, in fact, the  Marquis St. Evrémonde, but denounced his title before leaving France.  After the Bastille has fallen, Darnay returns to Paris to save a former servant, totally unaware of the Draconian new anti-aristocracy laws put in place by the revolving cabals of revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, and counter-counter-revolutionaries.  It doesn’t help that Madame Defarge has a very personal, very intense grudge against the  St. Evrémonde family and wants nothing more than to see them beheaded and extinct.


So, yes, there are vividly descriptive passages of the atrocities committed by both the Ancien Régime and Nouvelle République leading up to a final tension-laced trundle (and countdown) to Lady Guillotine, looming large Stage Right and waiting for sustenance.` (*)


In addition to those cast members already cited, this ensemble is filled out by Grant Chapman who plays both the old (and frequently vacant) Dr. Minette and a teenager accompanying Darnay/Carton on that final ride.  Tiffany Denise Hobbs plays both the blandly virtuous Lucie Minette and Darnay’s despicably cruel uncle (or was it his father? There are a lot of twins in this story).  Joe Knezevich plays the oily witness-for-hire (John Barsad) who plays a crucial role in the climax) as well as the dedicated Bank employee Jarvis Lorry.  And Stephen Ruffin has many roles, mostly judges, prosecutors, and executioners, but also primary storyteller, our liaison from the 2022 end of the skein to the1789  end resting in Madame Defarge’s knitting basket.  These eight actors are consummate chameleons, making quick (almost abrupt) transitions between ages, genders, and attitudes.  This entire production is a Master Class in ensemble acting.


As directed by Leora Morris, A Tale of Two Cities is a powerful and fresh “take” on a classic most of us have read (or seen on screen), and a disturbing window into our own complicity in the dark side of history.  She keeps a firm hand on the pace and on the transitions and on her team of theatre craftsfolks whose talents combine to make this a striking and beautiful experience.  Set and Lighting Designer Jiyoun Chang has created a mirror-backed series of platforms and staircases that let scenes flow easily and has lit them with gorgeous shades of blue and gold and moonlight – take note how the play starts with a large ball of yard rolling on stage, a ball that mirrors the many images of the moon orbiting the world(s) of London and Paris and Atlanta.  Costume Designer Fabian Fidel Aguilar has created stylized ensembles that evoke the era of Dickens more than the era of the Revolution without losing their connection to the present.  And Composer Chris Ross-Ewart has given us a musical soundscape that is intimately connected with mood and place.


I am, admittedly, a Dickensophile and will wallow in any stage adaptation of his works.  I am especially partial to those adaptations that show us the brilliance of Dickens’ characters and stories and language without sacrificing a vital connection to our own cultural paradigms and preferences.  Mr. Pelsue’s version of A Tale of Two Cities is (by far) my favorite adaptation of this work, and my only regret is that I didn’t see it until its final performance, losing the option of a second (or even third) visit.


It was indeed the Best of Times and the Worst of Times (Best because of the skill and passion populating the stage, Worst because it is over and done), a Time of Wisdom and a Time of Foolishness (Wisdom from the pointed parallels to modern times and our complicity in any imminent 21st century “Bloodbath, Foolishness from the frequent winks at the audience and low humor and suggestion that it is only “the other side” that carries complicity),  Spring of Hope and a Winter of Despair (Hope in the ultimate goodness of mankind, Despair at the eight months of bitter mudslinging ahead of us).


It was, in fact, an historical play that was very much about our own time.




            --  Brad Rudy  (


  #AllianceTheatre   #ATaleOfTwoCities    #CharlesDickens



( * ) Parallels to the January 6 Gallows for Mike Pence are no doubt intentional.

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