A Tale of Two Cities
The best surprise of the latest show at the Grandel Theater is Andrew Neiman's portrayal of Sidney Carton, the dissolute British lawyer of the famous Charles Dickens novel. In recent years, Mr. Neiman has done well as the company's high-minded Bolingbroke, Marc Antony, and as Pericles (the Shakespearian hero who would never stop to ask for directions). But freed at last from their insufferable nobility, Mr. Neiman can reveal a great talent for playing a young wastrel, with just enough scruples to pull off Dickens' riveting plotline.
It may not sound like the parting of the Red Sea, or water into wine, but I believe it's the first time at this company when Mr. Neiman has slipped the bonds of annoying goodness, to present a character with massive personality flaws. He slouches and growls like a hopeless alcoholic, though of course he finally manages to overcome his own debauchery to do that "far, far better thing than (he has) ever done before." Up till then, it's a pleasure to see a sneer on that handsome face, at last.
His look-alike in deadly France of 1775, Charles Darnay, is played with laser-like focus by Myron Freedman, showing solid gold honor in escaping his evil uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde. And in the role of Darnay, Freedman likewise escapes typecasting after his own recent Iago. For him and Mr. Neiman, against-typecasting works wonders.
Great performances flow like potato chips on a Labor Day weekend: Robert Ashton is charming as the trustee to Miss Manette (the splendid Lauren Summers); Richard Lewis (a late addition to the cast) is effete and monstrous as the Marquis, like a satin-draped catfish. The vastly over-qualified Sara Renschen pops in for a cameo as an acolyte of Madame Defarge (Donna Northcott, merciless and unstoppable as a brush fire). Teresa Doggett does double-duty: as an excellent nurse-maid to Dickens' sweet young thing, Miss Manette; and as the meticulous costume designer for every peasant and nobleman and servant on the stage. It's amazing that Ms. Doggett still has any energy for the final, wild brawling on the floor with Ms. Northcott.
Adam Thenhaus is a remarkable find as Carton's partner in court. He tickles the audience again and again with his supercilious plans to wed Miss Manette. Tyler Vickers shows a great understanding of Dickensian comic ruffians as Mr. Cruncher (his real-life wife, Megan Vickers, is equally good as Cruncher's prayerful wife). And Ben Richie and Bradley Behrmann are very solid as a pair of mercenary spies. Charles Heuvelman is appropriately simple and kind as the man who propels all the action in the first place: Dr. Manette, suddenly freed after 18 years in the Bastille. Donna Michaels-Postel returns to the stage after some 20 years' absence for an outstanding turn as a very creepy border guard - the final hurdle in Darnay's escape. And in a small but heart-breaking minute or two near the end, Katie Consamus is deeply affecting in the final trial scene.
Milt Zoth directs, retaining his reputation as one of the best in town during the biggest crowd scenes, which become like panoramic movie shots, or great Romantic paintings. But the show falls a bit short in a couple of respects: a few of the actors can't handle the accents most others bring off with relative ease; and the light plot, which should set the mood in blood-drenched reds or deep-blue nights, is nearly colorless. Prison scenes, garden scenes and riot scenes are all lit pretty much the same, and each would have benefited enormously from some fresh, unbleached lighting gels.
A big-group fight scene appeared to run at half-speed, but this may be inevitable with so many people crammed together on narrow platforms surrounded by zig-zag stair units, with swords and clubs in their hands (interestingly, modern American universities and shopping malls use similar geometric tricks to inhibit demonstrations and looting - imagine if Louis XVI had had their insight to remain in power!). Still, most of the actors who do crowd the stage give vibrant performances. And the lesser ones get a lift from the director's usual good staging and from choreographer Cindy Duggan. Robin Weatherall provides a spell-binding sound design, partially off-setting the nearly neutral lighting.
Through September 9th, 2007 at the Grandel Theater, on Grand Blvd., approximately one mile north of I-64 in mid-town St. Louis. Ticket information: (314) 534-1111; or visit them on-line at www.stlshakespeare.org.
Artistic Director ... Donna Northcott