Justice Done to Dickens A TALE OF TWO CITIES at Trinity Rep
When you get seated inside the Chace Theater at Trinity Rep, you might think you're in the wrong place. Eugene Lee's set for A TALE OF TWO CITIES, written by Brian McEleny and based on Dickens' novel, looks like a library. Stacks and stacks of books on two levels set behind rows of tables. When Christopher Sadlers and Joel Thibodeau enter alone to perform a musical introduction, you might still be confused. Check your program; you're in the right place. Not until the actors appear and begin intoning "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .," are you totally certain. It's a roundabout trip, but A TALE OF TWO CITIES ends up where it needs to be.
So who is Brian McEleny, and why is this version of A TALE OF TWO CITIES set in a library? McEleny is a long-time member of The Acting Company at Trinity, having appeared in over seventy-five productions, as well as directing over twenty-five. A graduate of Trinity College and the Yale School of Drama, he is Head of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. Acting Program. As far as I know, this is his debut as a playwright. They say actors always want to direct; I have never heard that actor/direcors always want to write, but here we have it. So why a library? Well first of all, it does remind you that we're exploring a great novel; several times in the production, one of the players will move from quoting the text to reciting their characters' lines. Also, I think it would be challenging for a conventional set to establish the many scene changes the work requires. Finally, libraries are places on of serenity and order, and make an excellent background for the chaos which is to ensue.
Trying to summarize the plot immediately gives on sympathy for McEleny's problem in condensing this work into two hours. I found the first act a little confusing, with the same actors appearing as different characters in different settings. The confusion reaches its peak at the end of the first act when the cast storms the Bastille, turns the tables into a barricade, and strews books and papers all over the stage. It doesn't sound like it would work, but somehow it does. The plot hinges on the amazing similarity in appearance between Daniel-Duque Estrada's Sydney Carton and and Taavon Gamble's Charles Darnay; they really don't look that much alike, but that didn't seem to matter either.
So what's to like. First of all, the storming of the Bastille was well staged, a very exciting scene. Secondly, the performances, particularly by Rachael Warren as the embittered and angry Madame Defarge. Her explanation of her bitterness made sense not only of the play but of the excesses of the Revolution. Rebecca Gibel as Lucie Manette breathed life into a part which could have been caricaturist. Matt Clevy made for an unbelievably evil jerk as the Marquis, and one hardly knows what to say of Rachel Dulude's outlandish Miss Pross. I will leave the guillotine as a surprise.
So what are the problems. The first act was confusing. You couldn't tell the players without a scorecard. I thought the aforementioned Matt Clevy's carriage driver was too stupid by half and jarring given the timing of his appearance. Finally, what his is is a love story, and we needed a little more time to see how much Sydney Carton loved Lucie Manette. Though as for that, you could feel the emotion in Lucie as Sydney marches towards "the far, far greater thing (he does)."
Trinity Rep is located at 201 Washington St. in Downtown Providence. The theatre is completely handicap accessible. A TALE OF TWO CITIES runs through March 22. For tickets call the box office at 401 351 4242 or go to www.trinityrep.com.