A Tale of Two Actors

Dennis chats with Myron Freedman and Andrew Michael Neiman, the leads in St. Louis Shakespeare's A Tale of Two Cities

Among the kaleidoscope of characters that populate the novels of Charles DickensEbenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, Pip and Miss Havisham, Fagin and the Artful Dodger — no two are more closely linked than Sydney Carton, the brilliant but dissipated London barrister, and Charles Darnay, the expatriate French aristocrat, in A Tale of Two Cities. So much so, that in some film versions, Sydney and Charles have been portrayed by the same actor. It's tough to pull off that sort of hat trick onstage. The St. Louis Shakespeare adaptation that opens this week features Andrew Michael Neiman as Carton and Myron Freedman as Darnay. Midway through rehearsals, they discussed the challenge of creating two such opposing archetypes.

Dennis Brown: You've been rehearsing for three weeks now. What has surprised you?

Myron Freedman: We find that we have to keep going back to the novel.

Andrew Michael Neiman: We do that a lot. Milt [Zoth, the director] opened the door for re-integrating stuff that wasn't in this adaptation. It's really been a collaborative process to see what authorial intentions we might want to bring back in. There's material in Dickens' narrative that is really illuminating and might in some places improve on the adaptor's dialogue. The story Dickens tells is melodramatic, but he's also darkly sardonic. I've been trying to get some of that back in.

As actors, how cognizant must you be of the physical resemblance between your two characters? Neiman: We've spent more time talking about our differences than our similarities. We've discussed how our characters have two different starting points, and then in the course of the play we cross each other's trajectories. Charles becomes less reserved and Sydney becomes more sober.

Freedman: In the courtroom scene, the idea is set up that we look alike. After that, assuming that the audience is now watching us in that sense, it then becomes important to show how we're different.

Do either of you find yourselves thinking about Dickens as you go through rehearsals? Freedman: Oh yes, and in both positive and negative ways. I'm the French guy. And yet when you read the novel, the language, the tone, everything is just so English. And frankly, the play read that way to me as well. And I feel like it's Dickens' fault. So my challenge has been to try to find the Frenchness of this guy. Darnay is elegant, but I think of the French as being of an earthier quality. So I'm trying to find his earthiness without losing his nobility of spirit.

Neiman: There's not a rehearsal where I don't have the book right there. At every rehearsal I'll say, "Milt, can we add this line in?"

Freedman: Carton's part is very large now.

Neiman: It's weird for a character to have to make such a drastic transformation in such short spurts. The story is so episodic. It's not continuously following five characters; it's following 25 characters. You appear, and then you're gone. So even though I'm only onstage in sporadic brief scenes of three minutes at a time, my challenge is to hold Sydney's journey through the course of two hours.

Freedman: The plot is as tangled as a Coen Brothers film. When you start to peel away what's going on, the links go back so far. That's Dickens at work.

It sounds as if rehearsals are going well. Freedman:Rehearsal is the best part of the process. You start out with this very polite approach to everything. Then as you become comfortable — not only with the lines but with the intent of each moment — you're able to start playing the extremes. This is where the fun comes in. This is where it starts to really feel like something. That's where we're starting to be right now.

 
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