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Thursday, February 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:37 PM

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Theater Review

"A Tale of Two Cities" | A subtle evolution among a raucous revolution

Seattle Times theater critic

The opening sentence is one of the most memorable in English letters, beginning with the deathless phrase: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... "

But Book-It Repertory Theatre's new retelling of "A Tale of Two Cities" isn't the best recent adaptation of the famed Charles Dickens novel. And it certainly isn't the worst.

Mounted in mini-epic style with a bustling cast of 19, this premiere dramatization by Jane Jones and Kevin McKeon can be about as subtle as a guillotine slamming down on a French aristo's neck.

With all the tableau-ing and hub-bubbing and stagy French accents in the peon throngs, one at times feels trapped in an overeager community-theater version of "Les Miserables."

But there are obvious pluses here too. The script laudably preserves the dialectical nature of Dickens' story, which finds faults and virtues in the French Revolution and in the ancien regime it toppled. It rips along, with an assist from Joshua Kohl's interesting original music.

And key actors in the major roles truly do rise above the mob. By turns, Andrew DeRycke as the redeemable misanthrope Sydney Carton, Todd Jefferson Moore as haunted Dr. Manette and Brian Thompson (in two pungent character turns) captivate us, lifting the show out of the boiling pot of melodrama.

In any case, "A Tale of Two Cities" is bound to be a crowd-pleaser for Book-It, on the strength of its title alone. It is still required reading in many a high school, thanks to Dickens' skilled conflation of world-shaking events with the fates of several symbolic families.

Now playing

"A Tale of Two Cities," by Charles Dickens, adapted by Jane Jones and Kevin McKeon. Wednesdays-Sundays through March 4 at Seattle Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$32 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

The novel's major themes and incidents, spread over 18 years (1775-93), are jammed into Jones' breathless, three-hour staging.

It starts with Dr. Manette's reunion with his daughter Lucie (fetching Stephanie Danna), after a brutal, unjust imprisonment in the Bastille. It continues with the enlightened aristocrat Charles Darnay (a rather bland Colin Byrne) wooing Lucie after renouncing the cruel privileges of his lineage, embodied by his uncle the Marquis (played with lip-smacking vileness by Thompson).

Less lifelike, on paper and stage, are the plebian revolutionaries, including the Defarges, a Parisian barkeep (James B. Winkler) and his vengeful wife (Sam Wykes). Mais oui, the latter knits the names of those marked for the guillotine into a crimson shroud, the most vivid part of a purposefully grim production design by Curtis Taylor and artist Mandy Greer. (A less effective symbolic stroke: a one-woman French chorus garbed by costumer Ron Erickson in a trailing scarlet ballgown).

When Charles makes a mercy trip to Paris, Madame Defarge's needles get busy. But as anticipated, DeRycke's Carton saves the day by doing "a far, far better thing" than he'd ever done before.

In the Dickens canon, "A Tale of Two Cities" is high on historical sweep, but low on humor. It is also, paradoxically, a deeply personal work.

When it came out in 1859, Dickens was 47, and at a crossroads. He was a devoted advocate for the poor, but also feared a British revolution could bring the bloody purges that followed France's uprising.

Love was also on his mind. Separated from his wife of many years, Dickens was infatuated with actress Ellen Ternan, a likely model for Lucie.

But the character closest to his heart was Carton, whose transformation gives the tale its spiritual gravitas.

With unmannered clarity, DeRycke's Carton evolves from a wastrel cynic to a Christ-like martyr. His poignant colloquy with Thompson's Jarvis Lorry, about love as service to the beloved, is a reminder of how meaningful a quiet stage conversation between two actors making genuine contact can be.

If only a soupçon of such nuance could be applied, more often, to the rampaging riff-raff, too.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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