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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 http://www.anoisewithin.org
It is an interesting new spin on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to look at the downfall of this unwise king from the lens of Alzheimer’s Disease. That is what director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott does in the production now in repertory at A Noise Within. It turns the focus almost exclusively on Lear, and allows for his admittedly conniving daughters to seem legitimate in their frustrations and outrage with him (at least at first). As someone who has watched a parent dissolve into this dread disease, I can say that the concept makes for interesting conversation.
However, when taken as a whole, to dismiss his behavior as the result of this condition is to negate much of the rest of what Shakespeare has to say about familial love, envy, and lust for power. It could (though actually does not) make a uniquely wrenching star turn for Geoff Elliott in the title role, but at what cost? It is too easy on Lear, for one thing, and twists the focus away from other important themes.
Essentially, Lear is a foolish man. Having ruled his country with intensely loyal people around him, he is used to expecting richly voiced praise. When he insists his daughters say how much they love him, he gets two fulsome answers and one honest, practical one, and turns on this last as a sign of disrespect. Thus, he hands over power to the two women who have his interests least at heart, and their own greed at the fore. He becomes an inconvenience and they whittle away at his dignity and even ability to defend himself until there is nothing left. Madness, thus, becomes a thing of circumstance, playing on a weak mind but not on a disabled one, as one can tell when he comes to himself toward the play’s end.
In the ANW production this last thing is made tricky by the disease itself – one which is emphasized over and over by projections of MRIs of slices of the brain which add color to the intentionally bleak set. When you descend into Alzheimers you forget who you are. No coming back from that.
Still, the larger loss is to the importance of and subtext about the moral decay present in daughters Goneril and Regan, and in the villainous Edmund, who determinedly destroys his legitimate brother Edgar and his father, the Earl of Gloucester. It also makes the dogged, sacrificial devotion to Lear by the banished Earl of Kent make less sense, and it makes the king’s Fool occasionally rather superfluous.
Finally, this interpretation leaves Elliott’s Lear without much room to expand. By making him significantly altered even at the start, he blossoms into what becomes (in this interpretation) an unreasoning fury so early that the rest of his long journey becomes a certain amount of emotional station-keeping. Still, as expected, Elliot uses Shakespearean language as if it was his own, and consistently stays true to the concept of this particular form of human disintegration.
Indeed, the cast itself is splendid. Trisha Miller and Arie Thompson advance the two older sisters from a radiation of privilege and power to a sense of self-focused obsessive, destructive behavior. In this they are matched by Jeremy Rabb as Regan’s noble, but easily vicious husband, while Christopher Franciosa provides an increasingly empowered foil for Goneril as her equally high ranking spouse. Freddy Douglass radiates evil in every tone as the deadly Edmund, and Rafael Goldstein handles desperation well as the maligned Edgar.
Apollo Dukakis gives the Earl of Gloucester some of what one hopes to see in a Lear: a happiness born of power and authority which dissolves thanks to his undeservedly horrifying fate. Perhaps most memorable, in this production, is Kasey Mahaffy’s wry, tuneful and audacious Fool – whom Rodriguez-Elliott has given a most spectacularly apt exit.
Fred Kinney’s bleak but extremely adaptable set design underscores the militaristic nature of the piece, which has been reset as if in the mid-20th century. Angela Balogh Calin does her best work in designing the dresses worn by the royal women, while Robert Oriol’s music sets the sense of doom throughout the piece.
In short, this is a good production of “King Lear,” except that in one important way, it isn’t. All the parts are there, but in service to a somewhat skewed interpretation which denies the larger play much of its power. “King Lear” plays in repertory with “Ah, Wilderness” and the soon-to-open “Man of La Mancha”.
What: “King Lear” When: in repertory through May 6, 7:30 p.m. April 13 and May 4; 8 p.m. April 8, 14, 23 and May 5; 2 p.m. matinees April 8, 23, and May 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org