Brian McEleney, a company regular at Trinity Rep — and a gifted actor who has performed in more than 70 plays at the theater, directing more than 25 — now shares his remarkable playwriting skills with his magnificent adaptation of "A Tale of Two Cities," the 1859 Dickens classic on stage through March 22.
Exquisitely directed by Tyler Dobrowski, with a strong and brilliant cast, Toni Spadafora's gorgeous, museum-worthy costumes, a set to remember and music so ethereal it will pierce your heart, McEleney's version remains true to Dickens but adds some stunning — and sometimes hilarious — contemporary touches that bring the story soaring into the 21st century.
"A Tale of Two Cities," readers will recall, is the epic Dickens story, set during the French Revolution, that begins with those famous lines: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness." (Feel familiar?)
At times, the actors recite the more poignant passages verbatim, allowing us to experience Dickens' beautiful, poetic, way with words.
At once a love story, a redemption story and a political commentary, "A Tale of Two Cities" is full of characters so complex, deep and vividly drawn they jump right off the page and stay with you for a lifetime. At Trinity, thanks to McEleney, they jump right off the stage, back on again, then onto tables and chairs. They march up and down the aisles and up and down the stairs. They also fight and shout, and cry and knit and rip pages out of books and send them flying through the air. The characters were so richly and beautifully portrayed that they too, should stay with you ... if not forever, for a very long while.
There's the fierce but lovely Lucie Manette (Rebecca Gibel gives her usual excellent performance), the unforgettable (and frightening) Madame Defarge (Rachel Warren is furious, fierce and fabulous) and the loyal Miss Pross (Rachel Dulude, in her striking pink costume, is delightful).
There's Doctor Manette (McEleney himself plays the role of Lucy's father, and perfectly), Monsieur Defarge (Stephen Berenson is solid, as always), Mr. Lorry (Timothy Crowe, also spot on), and the romantic lookalikes, both in love with Lucy, Charles Darnay (Taavon Gamble) and Sydney Carton (Daniel Duque-Estrada). Watching these two men perform together in these gripping roles is sublime.
And then there's the amazing Matt Clevy, who plays the hideous and hated Marquis (and is also part of the ensemble). When he came swooping in from on high, dressed in a shimmery, gold overcoat, gold sparkly slippers and carrying a small designer purse — with an exaggerated yellow pompadour hairdo, reminiscent of a certain someone with a similarly outrageous hairdo — I was reminded that some might say we, too, are in the midst of our own "winter of despair."
The story begins when Dr. Manette, "recalled to life" after serving 18 years in prison (the Bastille) is reduced to making shoes in the Defarges' wine shop. After being reunited with Lucie, the pair flee France for England and meet Darnay on the boat. Years later, when Darnay is accused of treason, the Manettes, along with the handsome Sydney Carton (a lawyer with a drinking problem), save him from the death penalty. Their lives become entwined — along with those of the Defarges and John Barsad (Jotae Fraser is wonderful) — and we follow them on a journey through a divided nation, with the judges, the juries, the executioners and the lovers.
Eugene Lee's set, which puts us in the middle of a modern-day public library ("rendered scenically as the Providence Athenaeum," according to the program) offers plenty of food for thought.
Kudos to fight choreographer Mark Rose and the rest of the ensemble, Rudy Cabrera, Jackie Davis and Dave Rabinow.
The music, with original songs written and performed by Providence-based singer Joel Thibodeau, is astonishing, which fits quite well with Dickens' story of astonishing sacrifice in an "epoch of incredulity."
When Thibodeau walked onto the stage solo, guitar in hand and long hair flowing, at the start of the play, I wasn't sure what to expect. Once he opened his mouth and began to sing — in his otherworldly, very high, very beautiful voice — I knew we were headed for something new and different. Could it be the spring of hope? Could it be the season of light will overcome this season of darkness?