Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
This production falls flat; audience reaction was extremely muted when I might have expected riotous laughter at the over the top situations. At first I thought it primarily due to less than razor sharp directing and a central performance that lacks the variety of voices to convey Dickens' panoply of characters, but other ideas were offered at a talk back that made a great deal of sense to me.
Mark Chambers played this very same show 20 years ago for American Stage. He was also my introduction to this company, in I Am My Own Wife in 2005. I remember his performance in that as quite good, but here he is not effective. The basic plot is that Jerry finds a baby on his doorstep the very night he is to go on as a drag artiste for the first time. The baby fusses and Jerry tries out a few nursery stories before settling in on the classic story that is the backbone of this play. While trying to act out this complex story, Jerry is called upon to switch back and forth between characters. Mr. Chambers does not show us enough vocal range to give each character a distinguishing voice, making it hard for the audience to keep track of them. Even with the use of props meant to help with this, many scenes sound too much alike.
I don't think Mr. Chambers is helped by director Janis Stevens. Introduction of characters and props meant to help the audience visually keep track of them are not well paced. Perhaps this fault lies in the script. At the talk back Mr. Chambers told us that he found parts of it not well written and almost impossible to act. Ms. Stevens might have helped by incorporating an old theatrical trick, anchoring important characters to a particular physical space, but she did not. At one moment when Madame Defarge cries out "off with his head," Jerry throws a wig, sitting on a Styrofoam wig stand towards the bath tub. It would have been infinitely funnier if he had shaken the wig stand causing the wig alone to go flying while he still held the stand. The directorial choices around the baby are better and he or she almost steals the show.
Scenic and property designs by Jerid Fox form an outstanding piece of this production. The setting is detailed yet still conveys a cramped studio apartment in New York. Costume design by Trish Kelley and lighting design by Joseph P. Oshry also are effective.
The choice to schedule this version of A Tale of Two Cities was made by an interim management team, before artistic director Stephanie Gularte was chosen. I wonder if it was a good choice.
A Tale of Two Cities, at American Stage Theatre Company, through June 26, 2016, 163 Third Street North, St. Petersburg. For more information, visit www.americanstage.org.
Cast: Mark Chambers*
Director: Janis Stevens