ST. PETERSBURG — There are at least three levels on which to appreciate American Stage's current retelling of A Tale of Two Cities.
The first is acting. Mark Chambers' solo performance is a tour de force. Not only is he tasked with telling Charles Dickens' sprawling story all by himself, but he also has to transform from a nebbishy-looking guy with a bad toupee into a noble drag queen. Putting on hose and cinching up his bust aren't the half of it.
He preens, he flexes, he flirts (with the audience as well as himself). He decorously lowers himself naked into a claw-footed tub with the strategic assistance of a bath towel.
And, he adopts a dozen or more different voices and mannerisms to portray the characters of the novel, who talk to each other in dialogue. It's a lot to keep track of, but Chambers manages to keep the characters distinct. Children often can be overheard narrating a story in the voices of their toys. Chambers turns that game into art.
The second is plot, although, despite Chambers' skill at differentiating the characters, this may be a little harder to follow. This is Dickens, after all, and playwright Everett Quinton has time to pluck only the major turning points and turn them into representative moments. It helps to know the story yourself. (Having not read the novel in decades, I prepped by reading a synopsis online and was glad I did.)
Some audience members at the matinee I attended, apparently, found it a bit much. "Very clever, but …" I overheard one woman say to another as they left the building at intermission.
The third level is the resonance of Dickens' 1859 novel, set just before and during the French Revolution, in the New York decade in which the play was written and set.
The novel is about the cruelties of social injustice, the lust for revenge and the chaos that results. In 1989, when the play was premiered by the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York's Greenwich Village, the AIDS crisis showed no signs of abating. No cure, few treatments, people dying in droves. It wasn't hard to see that official and societal indifference — the dying and dead were mostly just gay men and racial minorities, after all — had inhibited a more effective early response.
"The peasants are not swine!" an enlightened young man insists in the novel and play to his uncle, the Marquis St. Evrémonde, who is unperturbed at having just run over and killed a young boy with his carriage.
"Gay men are not expendable!" is the unspoken echo of the play. Thus, the importance of this story being narrated by a working-class drag queen named Jerry.
As Jerry gradually transforms himself into a buxom showgirl on the way to her debut, he also becomes more attached to the infant who has been left outside his apartment door (hilariously played by puppeteer Evan Causey, by the way). And we, the audience, become more attached to Jerry.
The play's conclusion dovetails perfectly with the noble climax of the novel. As Jerry prepares to carry the baby in his bassinet with him to work, he tells the story of the English attorney who has disguised himself as a man sentenced to the guillotine, in order that the other man may go free.