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Best of Times, Worst of Times: USF Presents 'A Tale of Two Cities'

It will be the best of times, it will be the worst of times as University of South Florida Theatre and Dance presents an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

The play is adapted by Mike Poulton and directed by Eduard Lewis. Lewis is visiting USF as part of the school's British International Theatre program, which for almost 25 years, has brought leading theater figures from across the pond to Tampa.


"When I heard what it was all about and all the people who’ve been involved with it in the past as well and the reputation it has, and the fact I got to spend January and February in Tampa, when in London it’s absolutely freezing at the moment, was a huge pull," Lewis said.

The 26-year-old Lewis served as assistant director of the play’s debut run at the Royal and Derngate Theatre in Northampton, England last year, but he says they’re going to do things a little differently here.

"Ruth Sutcliffe, who’s the designer on this project with me, when we started conceiving the original project, the original ideas for it, is we wanted to tell this classic story in a contemporary, dramatic and interesting way. And for that, we had to really make it for the USF audience," Lewis said. "So we’re not doing accents. We’re doing a slightly different set design and approaching it in a slightly different way because we believe that we want the story to be as immediately relevant to our audience as possible."

Freshman Cliff Kelley is making his USF debut as the play’s lead, Sydney Carton.

"There’s definitely a lot of nerves with it, but more than anything I’m excited. It’s an awesome opportunity and I don’t want to waste time worrying when I could be working, so that’s what I try to do," Kelley said.

He’s happy to be working with someone like Lewis, who has experience with the original production.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
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Student-actors Cliff Kelley (l to r) and Anthony Santaniello discuss their characters' motivations for a particular scene with director Eduard Lewis.

"Having someone who was involved in that first production is really helpful because he’s sort of able to give insight on how the writer and director of the original production wanted to do things and how we’re going to do differently or similar. It’s always good to have that sort of source material there," Kelley said.

Speaking of “source material,” junior Anthony Santaniello, who's playing both C.J. Stryver and Jarvis Lorry, is a huge fan of Dickens.

"It’s really cool to get to work with some of the greatest words written in the English language. You know you have Shakespeare, and you have Dickens, and then the rest, pretty much, for me, anyway." Santaniello said - but he admits that such admiration comes with a price.

"You can love a material, and that means that it’s going to come easy to you, you’re going to be able to work with it better, you’re not going to get frustrated with the work. But then there’s an added pressure to do the material justice," he said.

Senior Selena Frey admitted the story was new to her, but she found it exciting.

"And the first thing I thought about the play was 'huge emotional experience.' And I want that in theatre, so that I immediately connected to and launched onto. If a play can make me cry in the first time of reading it, I want to be a part of it," Frey said.

She added that her job is a double challenge: she’s playing four different roles, and they’re all men.

"So it’s about making choices, but not for the sake of choices, that choices all have to be grounded and help the story and don’t pull focus or change the story in any way, but also to create distinction so the audience can understand where we’re going and that I didn’t just leave a scene and now I’m appearing and I’m not the same person," Frey said.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
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Movement director Jonnie Riordan (l to r), director Eduard Lewis and student-actors Landon Layland and Selena Frey talk about a scene

The play is heavy with action, including a number of fight scenes and a violent carriage crash, so a second British artist, movement director Jonnie Riordan, was brought in to help out. He explained that a movement director – common in British theater – is like a choreographer, but of more than just dancing.

"I deal with the physicality of the actors, but especially with regards to our show, it’s about bringing the epic scale of it to life. We kind of flip between Paris and London in about 30 seconds, so I need to kind of present that in a creative, exciting way," Riordan said.

"The way we built it in our show is using roof sets, which is predominantly our poles and our scaffolding set in the back," he added. "But also we’ve got tables and chairs and podiums, so it’s kind of a big, sort of energetic, electrifying moment of all of that stuff appearing and forming this shape in the middle of the space. And it’s more about the cast’s energy as they come on that kind of creates that sort of pace."

And beyond the fights, and the flowing English language, Eduard Lewis says the themes at the heart of the USF production of A Tale of Two Cities - revolution and love - not only remain true to Dickens’ original work, but continue to reign true in the world today.

"I mean, revolution is a part of human life and is a part of society. You see Israel, Palestine, even here you had the Ferguson riots recently," Lewis said. "Revolution is a part of the fabric of our society, and love is a part of who we are as humans. And so with those themes in the play, we didn’t want to distance are audience and make them feel like, 'Okay, all of this happened in the 18th century a long, long time ago, and it’s a lovely story, but it’s not relevant to me today.' So a huge amount of what we’ve been doing has been to make that relevance resonate in our production."

A Tale of Two Cities runs February 19-21 and 25-27 at 8 p.m. and 22 and 28 at 3 p.m. in Theatre 2 on the USF Tampa campus.  Tickets are $10 for students, seniors and the military, and $15 for general admission.
Tickets can be purchased at the USF Box Office by calling 813-974-2323 or at the Box Office website.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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