Dickens' a Tale of Two Cities: Immediate, Raw Storytelling

Planet Theatre,
Through March 21
Running time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Photo from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities

The unexpected choice by boundary-pushing VORTEX Repertory Company to mount this seemingly straightforward adaptation is clear from the start: Kirk Smith has pulled the disparate parts of Dickens' long, tortuously wrought plot together with a mix of verve and passion, intimacy and grandeur. Bonnie Cullum, VORTEX's producing artistic director, takes the helm, clearly relishing the inherent theatricality of Dickens' work. Sans props, sans sets, sans costumes -- all the elaborate extras are unnecessary when you pare down to such immediate, raw storytelling.

As the Revolution engulfs France, one man, noble born but sympathetic to the oppressed citizenry of his native country, returns from his schoolteaching abroad to help a compatriot. Imprisoned as an emigrant and headed for the guillotine, Charles Darnay finds himself saved by the story's anti-hero, the brusque, drunken Englishman Sydney Carton. How both men travail toward a better world, their chance meeting in an English courtroom, how they share the love of the beautiful Lucie Manette, and how they come to grips with life in the turbulent Revolution, are details bobbing in a sea of characters, settings, and situations that playwright Smith has so finely constructed.

As Sydney Carton, Matt Patterson proves that his years on the Austin stage have given him a maturity and grace, as well as the technical prowess to pull off this deceptive role. No mere drunk, Carton is given to deep guilt, ruminating almost existentially about his place in the world, compared to such an exemplary figure as Darnay. No mere hero, this Carton is equally at home in the conniving, bribing, threatening world of the people's revolt in the blood-soaked heart of Paris, as he is with the erudite Manette household. No mere suitor, Carton professes his feelings for Lucie but insists she hold them in her heart while she gravitates toward her life with Darnay. Patterson easily embodies the contradictions and buried passions of Carton.

Given the cast of 20 actors, there are bound to be degrees of success when it comes to managing the scores of characters that fill the stage. Henry V. Fitzgerald Jr. has a compelling energy as coachman Joe, and again as the heartless Monseigneur. Bill Durham examines the two sides to Alexandre Manette well: the broken ex-prisoner huddled maniacally over his shoemaker's bench as well as the recovered aristocratic father. Gwen McLendon, as daughter Lucie, radiates purity, concern, and inner strength, forced to observe the vast injustices that plague her husband, Darnay. David Saldaña is stoic as Darnay, but speaks so rapidly at times that the character seems unable to catch up to the actor.

Cullum uses the whole ensemble to create some deft -- and a few awkward -- crowd scenes. One wonders if some members of the young cast have ever really raised their fists in anger, so gentle was their prodding at the walls of the Bastille. It is this variation in the ability of the cast to articulate the story clearly, in spite of the ensemble's obvious commitment to the work, where the production falls short.

If there are minor flaws in the acting, the overall sense of this production is its neatness, its compactness, and its power. The final image of the play appears to have been drawn from some monumental, enormous 19th-century canvas of a revolutionary crowd scene, with a searing highlight on Patterson's searching, uplifted face. -- Robi Polgar


Hogg Auditorium
February 28

Photo from Dancers and Musicians of BaliGoing to a show in Hogg Auditorium is always a learning experience. First you learn that the parking situation has indeed worsened since you attended school. Then, once you swagger into the auditorium flushed with pride because the parking gods smiled on you tonight, you learn a little history about the auditorium from the fragmented reminiscences of other alumni who took a class there years ago. And on my most recent trip to Hogg, I also learned that the Dancers and Musicians of Bali have a delightfully refreshing sense of humor and a respectful sensitivity toward their audience.

In "Kecak," a ritual dance in which the Balinese performers attempted to drive away evil spirits, the dancers were joined in the narrative by the musicians, who provided quirky chattering sounds and a cappella singing as both accompaniment and a huge 20-plus chorus of movers. They split in half to support opposing spirits in a battle, and as one spirit gained the upper hand, his supporters lunged and gloated, reminding me of the Jets and the Sharks. A piece titled "Barong" featured a humorous mythical creature of that name and an ape, who charmed the audience by picking imaginary fleas out of an audience member's hair and offering her a banana in exchange. Barong, a large furry creature operated by two performers, much like a Chinese dragon, sported jiggling gold deely-boppers on its head and a continuously chomping mouth. After delivering a long exposition in their native tongue, one of the human characters turned to the audience and asked if we understood a word he said. Touched by his sensitivity to the language barrier, we laughed in relief, and he occasionally narrated in English.

The gamelan, or gong-and-chime orchestra, delicately hammered their ornately carved instruments, lulling the audience with layered tones and amazing unison work. The musicians accompanied the requisite offering dance, honoring the stage that had been transformed from its usual boxy shape into a lush environment complete with plants, umbrellas, and an ornate entryway in the center. The dancers, in rich gold and vibrant colors, alternated between slow, sustained movements and quick isolations of the head, eyes, hands, and shoulders, as well as deep knee bends. The women, in tight skirts, danced with rigid, off-center torsos and traveled over the stage space by gliding along on flat feet. The men, in looser but no less ornate costumes, commanded space with their out-turned knees and regal gait.

One soloist who stood out from the rest of the company performed an incredible piece that seemed to entice the musical pace to match the dancing. The violet-clad performer's expressive hand gestures and complex variations of isolations resembled the sharpness of a bird. Paired with calm spins and abrupt facing changes, the magnetic quality of the dancer's skill enchanted the audience.

In a culture rife with overstatement, the quiet assurance of this performance taught me that dancers don't necessarily have to leap, shout text, or spin on their elbows to make their point. Sometimes celebrating the small things can be just as impressive as tearing up the scenery with vigorous dancing. Sly and subtly mischievous, the Dancers and Musicians of Bali enlightened and amused the audience with both grace and a sense of humor. --Dawn Davis

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Dance, Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Museum, Robert Faires, Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens, Kirk Smith, Vortex Repertory Company, Bonnie Cullum, Matthew Patterson, Matt Patterson, Henry V. Fitzgerald, Jr. Henry Fitzgerald, Bill Durham, Gwen Mclendon, David Saldaña, Planet Theatre,

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