cast of tale of two cities in production photo

AJC: Alliance Theatre makes 'Tale of Two Cities' accessible and relevant

Alliance Theatre makes ‘Tale of Two Cities’ accessible and relevant (

Christopher Moses is co-artistic director of the Alliance Theatre. Photo: Greg Mooney

There are those who read Charles Dickens devotedly and consider him one of the greatest novelists the world has ever known.

And there are those who perhaps encounter him in school on a required reading list who consider navigating his wordy, old-fashioned prose to be like stumbling through the dark alleyways of a Victorian London slum without a candle.

Both groups may find common ground at the Alliance Theatre in coming weeks as it launches the world premiere of a brisk, stripped-down remix of “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dickens’ classic tale about the upper and lower classes in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.

“When folks hear ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ they tend to think of it as associated with homework, something not necessarily entertaining,” says Chris Moses, co-artistic director of the Alliance. “But what (playwright) Brendan Pelsue has created with this piece is going to be riveting, thrilling and funny.”

Funny Dickens? Absolutely, says director Leora Morris, who points out the original novel has scenes of comic relief sprinkled into the life-or-death stories of the main characters and the pointed commentary about economic inequality. In rehearsals recently, the cast has been discovering hints of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the Muppets and “The Princess Bride” in Pelsue’s approach.

“The tone shifts back and forth between this melodramatic love story, a political satire and then these moments of silliness,” Morris says.

That’s in keeping with the Alliance’s Classic Remix program, which wants to theatrically blow the dust off great works of literature and present them to high school students as well as the traditional Alliance audience as part of its main season. (All tickets for teens are just $10.)

Tess Malis Kincaid. Courtesy of Tess Malis Kincaid

The Alliance started the program in 2018 and first presented “Seize the King,” a remix of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Pelsue’s “Tale,” billed as a “radical re-imagining,” was commissioned by the Alliance in 2020, just as COVID-19 was shutting down the theater world, and so his adaptation has been “germinating” (his word) for four years.

“We were looking for something that addressed the concerns of the world we’re living in now, around inequality, representation, questions of violence and what happens when those enter politics,” Pelsue says. “But we were also looking for something that wasn’t about our time and place.

“According to some reports a young person born into poverty here in Atlanta has a little over a 3% chance of escaping poverty,” says Moses. “So, we thought this would be a really interesting way to open up that conversation in the context of Dickens’ story.”

“Tale” was originally published in 1859 in 31 weekly installments in Dickens’ literary magazine, called All the Year Round. It’s among his shortest novels, less than half the page count of “David Copperfield” and many others, but it’s still jammed with characters and plot.

Pelsue, who has an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and received the Weston Prize in playwriting, began by mapping out all those people and plot points on large sheets of paper.

“That helps you see what the actual spine is and what are appendages,” he says. “A lot of the work is snipping out the appendages.”

The novel is rife with “doubling”: characters who look almost identical (leading to mistaken identities) and characters who are mirror images of one another in the social order. That led Pelsue early on to the decision to have actors play multiple roles. Eight actors (Grant Chapman, Tiffany Hobbs, Tess Malis Kincaid, Joe Knezevich, Louis Reyes McWilliams, Lee Osorio, Brad Raymond and Stephen Ruffin) play 54 different characters, which also helps keep the production cost down.

This kind of multi-role casting is well-established, although maybe not to this degree, from the Alliance’s traditional mounting of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit “Hamilton,” which also shares a similar DNA of trying to make history feel contemporary and even a bit playful

Joe Knezevich. Courtesy of Joe Knezevich.

The multiple roles and the vast class differences among the characters have led the actors and director Morris to wax philosophical during the recent weeks of rehearsals at the Alliance.

“I always feel like, when I’m working on a Brendan play, there is this real question of how is space going to work and how is time going to work?” says Morris.

“How much are we disappearing into the imaginary circumstances and when are we kind of pulling all the way back out and really being together in the theater and aware of the theatricality of everything?

“So it’s not simply like, here is a troupe of actors putting on a play that is asking you to participate as an audience. It feels a little bit more enigmatic than that.”

As they rehearsed, the cast discussed a poem titled “Please Call Me By My True Names” by the Buddhist writer and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh.

“It’s about being the frog in the water that eats the fish but also being the snake on the shore that eats the frog, if that makes sense,” Morris says.

Meanwhile, in the nuts and bolts of the real stage, there are no frogs or snakes, just eight actors frantically changing clothes over two hours. The logistics, largely figured out during rehearsals, include some character transformations occurring onstage in plain view. An actor might complete a scene, step to one side, turn a coat inside out, put on a hat, and step forward as a different character starting a new scene.

The rhythm of the scene changes begins slowly, director Morris explains, and “then there is some momentum that builds. The scenes get shorter and shorter as it goes on, and they start to overlap like a runaway train.”

“Tale” even includes a little audience interaction. “There are moments in the script where Brendan has included the audience as a part of the mob,” says Moses, “asking for a vocal response from the audience.” After all, the unslakable voice of the mob was an important part of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.

Since the Alliance started Classic Remixes to bring students to literary works in the theater, it’s appropriate that Pelsue was a high school literature teacher before he became a playwright.

“Part of my job as a teacher is not to tell you what to think,” he says, “but to invite you into the conversation about the questions being asked. Any time you can leave the theater asking big questions, that’s a great evening.”


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