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A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities”: character, not melodrama

Frederick Stuart makes a particularly complex Sydney Carton in A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Any time someone translates a novel to the stage, there is risk involved. The depth of interior monologue, the detail of setting and character, the convolutions of plot and emotion, even the poetry of language used to provide all of this, are all limited by the confines of the stage and the time frame expected of a standard play.

Never is this more true than when dramatizing the works of Charles Dickens. A man who loved theater, his works are in many ways quite theatrical, but they are also often intricate, interior and long. One either carves much of the detailed verbiage away, as has been done several ways for, say, “Oliver Twist,” or one extends the play into two parts, as the Royal Shakespeare Company did for “Nicholas Nickleby”. Michael Poulton’s adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” now open at A Noise Within in Pasadena chooses the former, but in the process creates a focus on the meat of Dickens’ story: that of the dangers of both oligarchy and chaos.

For those who did not read the novel in high school (or after) the play follows the fortunes of Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who renounces his noble family for a life of work in Britain just as the French Revolution sparks. In Britain he must fight accusations of being a spy, and in the process becomes close to three people who will define his life.

One is Dr. Manette, long a prisoner in the Bastille, whom he assists in traveling safely from France to England. Another is Manette’s daughter Lucie, whom Darnay marries. The third is the profligate Sydney Carton, his virtual look-alike, whose friendship with Darnay, and wistful love for Lucie provide lifelines for a man who, though young, sees himself as already worthless and beyond redemption. Then Darnay’s servant begs him to return to revolutionary France at the height of the Reign of Terror to save his life.

As adapted by Poulton, this becomes both a character study, and an examination of the explosion and vengeance resulting from an oligarchy pushing inequality too far. As a result, it avoids the more Victorian villainization of the rebels, turns the story to focus on personal struggles and definitions of justice, and manages to ennoble the wayward Carton without whitewashing his behaviors or his depression. As directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, this episodic and complex tale is given a sense of seamlessness which allows the main themes to rise.

Tavis Doucette makes an earnest and straightforward Darnay. Emily Goss provides a sense of innocence, bravery and devotion as Lucie, while Nicholas Hormann delivers a calm practicality as her father Dr. Manette. Also important is Michael Stone Forrest, who gives the English banker Mr. Lorry a sense of presence and a force of personality which ties together much of the most tense period in the storyline. Trisha Miller, as Lucie’s devoted governess, radiates the strength and indignation of the British servant class. Abby Craden make the villain, Madame Defarge, most convincing, but in a way which underscores this French peasant’s reasons for her searing hatred of Darnay’s family.

Still, the center of the tale in this rendition is Frederick Stuart’s Sydney Carton. Stuart makes Carton’s dissolution more a symptom of depression and oppression by opportunistic employers than simply a sin in and of itself. The other characters’ sympathy for him proves more justifiable, and his willingness to lean toward nobility and sacrifice far more logical. It’s a powerful performance.

Also integral to the production’s success are Jenny Foldenauer’s costumes which, with the exception of a couple of barrister wigs, proves authentic and unexaggerated. Fred Kinney’s modular set pieces, coupled with Kristin Campbell’s projections create drama out of crates and partitions in very effective ways, allowing swift changes of scene in the process. Robert Oriol’s original songs bring the emotional backdrop of the era’s tensions.

“A Tale of Two Cities”, as a story, is a classic in every sense of the word. At ANW it is done justice in many ways. Though some purists may miss a concentration on the inner monologues which make Dickensian characters so interesting and yet so hard to portray, this version when performed this well proves that a tale of upheaval and ethics plays well to a modern audience. Indeed, given the current state of the world, a discussion of oppression, revenge, and ethical choices takes on greater significance.

What: “A Tale of Two Cities” When: through November 19, 7 p.m. October 29, and November 19, 7:30 p.m. October 19 and November 9, 8 p.m. September 29 and 30, November 4 and 10, with 2 p.m. matinees September 30, October 29, November 4 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or

“Pericles, Prince of Tyre” at A Noise Within: Playing it like they mean it

Deborah Strang, as Gower, and her chorus as narrators in Pericles at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang, as Gower, and her chorus as narrators in Pericles at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all of the plays published in editions of Shakespeare’s complete works, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” has the most tenuous connection with him. Most, though not all scholars believe it to be only about half by Shakespeare – a fact which seems backed up by the comparatively clumsy poetry in certain sections of the work. As a story, it proves the Shakespearean equivalent of a soap opera – rife with coincidence, supposed deaths, and tormented souls which, though not unusual in Elizabethan drama in general, is over the top (or at least overly two dimentional) for the Bard.

For this reason, “Pericles” is not often produced. If a company chooses to take it on, they must play it absolutely straight – a tough task with a storyline so camp. Which brings us to the production currently one of three plays in repertory at A Noise Within, in Pasadena. Here, this episodic and ridiculous tale proves entertaining in part because of the quality of the acting, in part because of a set and vision which take it out of time and work well on an audience’s “imaginary forces”, and in part because it is played absolutely as if it is the best thing the Bard ever wrote.

The tale is of the young king of Tyre, who goes adventuring upon the waves. As a good hero must, he finds a lovely princess he can only win if he solves a riddle. The problem is, when he does it infuriates the asker, who orders him killed. He runs, is shipwrecked, falls for another princess, marries her and then must run again. Another shipwreck, a supposed death in childbirth, a fantastical waterproof burial at sea, a bride on a beach who becomes a temple votress. Our hero parks his newborn baby with a friendly royal in another land. Later, jealousy, a princess in a brothel saving her virginity with noble speech, and after more death threat-driven, salt-laden travels, Pericles reappears and the entire family reunites. Got it?

Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has a penchant for creating a commedia-esque chorus for her Shakespearean productions, and here it works to keep things light and appropriately otherworldly. Combined with Jeanine A. Ringer’s versatile, compartmentalized wall-as-set and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes – themselves a fantastical whirlwind of eras and styles – the entire piece is allowed a constant, upbeat pacing, and firmly planted in the world of fantasy.

Jason Dechert  as the young Pericles

Jason Dechert as the young Pericles

Jason Dechert is, for most of the tale, the consistently honorable, consistently thwarted young Pericles. His earnestness and emotional engagement keep the play moving. As the three central princesses who affect his life, Jules Willcox manages to shift character enough keep the three as specific entities with separate reactions to our hero prince. Guiding us through their various adventures as narrator is the clown-like Gower, given authority and an interesting spin by Deborah Strang.

Jane Macfie gives the combined role of Dionyza (no ruler of her land, instead of the wife of one) a balance of warmth and conniving necessary to put Pericles’ daughter in peril. Michael Stone Forrest has a ball as the warm king of the warm land from which Pericles receives a bride. As the warped old king whose anger threatens our prince, and as the aged Pericles finally home from his wanderings, Thomas Tofel creates two very distinct people – one conniving, and one at the end of his rope.

Supporting them, in a variety of essential but changing roles is a solid ensemble, some becoming singular characters, others acting as crowd and back-up chorus to Gower. Through them this flow which makes the play work moves on fairly seamlessly. And that is the greatest challenge of this work, other than taking it seriously: keeping the audience engaged while the story hops gleefully all over the Mediterranean.

In the end, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” is still a problematic bit of Shakespeare. However, it’s fun to see it done with such verve and intention. Certainly, it is a challenge to its performers, particularly those who embody many different guises during the course of the story. For a play rarely done, and even more rarely done well, this is a Shakespeare nut’s treat and an education for everyone else.

What: “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” When: in repertory through November 24: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m. Thursday Nov. 7, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, November 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext 1 or

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