Compelling ‘Tale of Two Cities’ does justice to Dickens’ novel

Kasey Mahaffy, is the attorney general, left, and Emily Goss is Lucie in “A Tale of Two Cities,” presented by A Noise Within through Nov. 19 in Pasadena. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
Kasey Mahaffy, is the attorney general, left, and Emily Goss is Lucie in “A Tale of Two Cities,” presented by A Noise Within through Nov. 19 in Pasadena. (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
“A Tale of Two Cities” ensemble (Photo by Craig Schwartz)
“A Tale of Two Cities” ensemble (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

‘A TALE OF TWO CITIES’

★★★½

When: Through Nov. 19; 8 p.m. Sept. 29-30, 2 p.m. Sept. 30, also select dates in October and November.

Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.

Tickets: From $25

Length: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission.

Suitability: OK for older children.

Information: 626-356-3100, www.anoisewithin.org

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 playing 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 that allows the main themes to rise.

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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 that 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 makes the villain, Madame Defarge, most convincing, but in a way that 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, prove 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 A Noise Within it is done justice in many ways. Though some purists may miss a concentration on the inner monologues that 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.

Frances Baum Nicholson has been reporting on the Los Angeles area theater scene for more than 35 years. To read more of her reviews, go to www.stagestruckreview.com.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’

Rating: 3.5 stars

When: Through Nov. 19; 8 p.m. Sept. 29-30, 2 p.m. Sept. 30, also select dates in October and November.

Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.

Tickets: From $25

Length: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission.

Suitability: OK for older children.

Information: 626-356-3100, www.anoisewithin.org

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