If only Alex Mills was available to tell stories to my now 31 year old daughter when she was a baby. While I read to her aplenty, she would have marveled and communicating happily through gurgles at Alex’s animated imaginative skills which would keep her interest. In fact, this is just what happens between Alex with “his” stage baby, Vato Tsikurishvili, in the current Synetic Theater production of A Tale of Two Cities.
Don’t expect a usual Synetic production. A Tale of Two Cities is not chock full of pulsating original music with athletically sculpted young folk acrobatically dancing and tumbling wearing costumes that display their physical assets. No, this is Helen Hayes Award recipient Alex Mills, on stage for nearly two-hours as a vivacious drag queen in a narrative, speaking non-stop, in a one-actor show. No, make that one-actor with one marvelous “baby.”
The 1989 Obie-winning A Tale of Two Cities was authored by Everett Quinton in 1988 not long after his partner Charles Ludlam passed away. A Tale of Two Cities was first performed at NYC’s Ridiculous Theater Company.
Serge Seiden, director of A Tale of Two Cities, is on the money as he wrote in notes for the Synetic production of A Tale of Two Cities, “It should hint at the pleasures of Dickens’s wonderful novel, remind us of outrageous Hollywood screen performances and give us a peak into the boudoir of a fabulous, imaginative drag queen”.
Now if you recall the Dickens’ epic Tale of Two Cities as a long tedious sometimes torturous slog through history, albeit with some great quotes and the blood-lusting, guillotine-loving Madame Defarge. You can discard that notion. If you don’t recall or never were required to read A Tale of Two Cities, rather than doing an Internet search, let this Synetic production be your introduction. Well, an introduction if you are ready for dialogue that is recommended for ages 16+ for its language and partial nudity, according to Synetic marketing materials.
The show opens before the dialogue starts. The audience walks into the theater space to see a lived-in, wonderfully cluttered, nowhere to sit but one couch, claw bathtub with water in the kitchen, mannequin-rich, with one well used walk-in closet. This may be familiar to those with a New York City state of mind from the 1970s. The interior was like DC’s Miss Pixie on delivery day. Oh, add in two very visible movie posters; one for A Tale of Two Cities with Ronald Colman and the other for Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn. The setting is from the fertile mind of Luciana Stecconi. Add in a multitude of props including knitting needles and a giant size Cheerios box by way of Amy Kellett’s and the table is set for the coming action.
In comes Alex Mills as Jerry, a drag club performer getting ready for an evening event. But wait, the best laid plans are kicked aside when a baby’s loud wail comes from the hallway. Mills opens his door to discover a baby basket with a note from someone asking that the baby be cared for. So, what is to be done? After the usual fairy tale stories don’t work to shush the baby, in desperation Jerry speaks those Dickens lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Poof. With that comes not merely silence but active attention from the baby Tsikurishvili.
For the next nearly two hours, Mills entertains Tsikurishvili with the epic A Tale of Two Cities (1859) as if in installments. I can’t be sure every character in the book was mentioned, but there certainly were the mainstays such as Madame deFarge, Sydney Carton, Doctor Manette, Gabell, Roger Cly, and Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette, if I heard correctly.
Now, picture this; the audience only sees Tsikurishvili’s marvelously expressive face as he juts out from a concealed opening in a couch’s back. His hands and shoulders are those of a large plastic baby doll. With an incredibly active face including delightfully dramatic eyebrows, a mouth that seems rubbery and stretchable well beyond normal dimensions he projects an easy-to-read communications of gurgles and Andy Kaufman-like made-up language in an enchanting pairing with Mills. Honest, Tsikurishvili is always in the moment when he appears.
Kendra Rai’s costume design for Mills is full of assorted belongings around the set that allow him to be any part within A Tale of Two Cities. He starts off in vibrant red capri pants that perhaps Audrey Hepburn or Mary Tyler Moore once wore along with a gauzy top covering a striped spring green polo. As the play progresses he finds plenty of new attire in his walk-in closet. Finally, Mills settles into drag undergarments as he put on make-up right before our view, never missing a beat from his story-telling.
Yes, the show does get long and sometimes slows to a crawl. Thankfully these periods are not too often and soon enough more animated interaction flowed between Mills and Vato Tsikurishvili to save the day. And yes, over time, not each and every character portrayed by Mills stood on its own. But so what? Mills is in non-stop dialogue with nary a missed line or beat. It is a marathon with Mills coming into the Olympic stadium or perhaps Freddie’s Beach Bar, standing on his own two feet, not needing help to the finish line.
As the production ends; well ends a first time, Mills as Jerry sweeps out of his apartment to get to his club performance with those famous words last words of Sydney Carton, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…” and off he goes. As for baby Tsikurishvili, he will find himself on a new doorstep, hoping this time for a more permanent placement.
Except wait, then coming down the theater aisle from the rear to center stage, we get to witness the outstanding performance of Mills in full drag, singing “Gloria” taking the audience in tow. Priceless.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.
A Tale of Two Cities plays through June 21, 2015 at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Arlington, VA (At the Crystal City Metro). For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.