Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.
Sometimes when one mixes authors and genres to produce something for the stage it can look just like that sounds: a hodgepodge. On the other hand, sometimes the result is much more than the sum of its parts.
One way or another, that can be said of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Playwright Rick Elice has taken a children’s book and a children’s story and smashed them together into a play which, though fanciful, is not really for children. Directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers have taken that play and staged it in a mash-up of English panto, Monty Python-esque British humor, and story theater. The results are funny, charming, clever and wistful.
The base of the plot is the book of the same name by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, which provides a prequel to “Peter Pan”. To this has been added significant nods to J.M. Barrie’s famed original tale of Peter.
It concerns the trials of Lord Aster, an English ambassador, and his daughter Molly. He is sent to the island of Rangoon with a chest of the Queen’s treasure. Molly and her governess are sent on a different ship, by a different route, to the same destination with a similar chest. On that second ship are a group of orphans destined for slave labor in Rangoon, led by a nameless boy who eventually names himself Peter. There are pirates and danger and magic galore, an island, a crocodile, and all the explanations needed for how Lost Boys ended up in Neverland.
All of this is told as story theater tells things: minimal set, a few props adapted over and over to become places, tools and dramatic effects, and a cast which – for the most part – covers a host of differing characters in the telling of the tale. It’s a hoot – silly, clever and just a bit bizarre. At least one women’s part is played by a man, in true panto format. Everything has a slightly salacious undertone and its tongue stuck firmly in its cheek, all of which adds to the comedy.
Of course, for all of this to work one must have a versatile and able cast, and this production definitely does. Among a well-tuned ensemble, standouts include Joey deBettencourt as the boy who will be Peter, Megan Stern as the direct and logical Molly, John Sanders having oversized fun in a Groucho Marx mustache as Black Stache the pirate, and Benjamin Schrader delightfully outrageous as the nanny Mrs. Bumbrake. Also particularly fine are Nathan Hosner’s turn as the disciplined British diplomat Aster and Lee Zarrett as Fighting Prawn, the ruler of the island they encounter.
Still, it is the style and the staging which make the show. Nearly everything in Donyale Werle’s set and among Paloma Young’s costumes are repurposed articles, helped and celebrated by Broadway Green Alliance, and one reason the show won Tonys for them both. This use of recycling meets an impressive, and belly laugh-inducing height during the mermaid sequence which begins the second act, and in the entire sequence with the crocodile. That creature’s “image” must be seen to be believed.
Again, it must be said that this show is not for kids, at least younger or less sophisticated ones. Also it must be approached in the appropriate spirit. It was sad to see people leave at intermission (before some of the funniest bits) because it was too silly or too hard to follow. This show’s unabashed ridiculousness is the same kind of humor which has endeared Monty Python to generations, and turned English panto into a national treasure. You must come with that sense, and with a willingness to suspend all disbelief, to have the fun everyone should have at this production.
“Peter and the Starcatcher” won five Tonys for a reason. It does what it does very well indeed. So come for a laugh, and a lighthearted new view of the Peter Pan most have known since childhood. As long as you expect the unexpected, and are willing to play along, you’ll have a unique, and uniquely refreshing holiday treat.
What: “Peter Pan” When: through January 12, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added performances at 8 p.m. Monday December 23 and 30, and 2 p.m. December 26 and January 2. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $110 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
When signature performances appear on screen, even if they are recreating roles from the stage, those performances can become a huge barrier to creativity among stage productions which follow. Even reviewers can fall victim, including the former editor of mine who condemned a brilliant new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” because the show’s lead didn’t deliver the lines as Elizabeth Taylor had.
It’s especially tough on community or semi-professional companies, where the easy fallback position for a director is sometimes to “do it like the movie.” This is why the recent production of “On Golden Pond” at Whittier Community Theater, which closed this past weekend, proved so refreshing. Each character was well-defined and well played, in a show with pacing which kept it interesting, often funny, and as touching as it should be. And nobody was “being” Henry or Jane Fonda, or Katharine Hepburn.
The tale of an aging, intellectually interesting couple at their summer cabin on the lake creates a particular opportunity for older actors to sink their teeth into characters outside the typical. Indeed, at Whittier, Eric Nelson created the essential Norman Thayer, crusty and morose with a soft underside he keeps well hidden. You can’t help but like him, just a bit – a necessity for the plot to move forward, but trickier to accomplish that one imagines.
Roxanne Barker, as Norman’s wife Ethel, created one of the finer performances of her recent career – precise, with an underlying warmth, but underplayed to match the mood of the play. Elizabeth Lauritsen’s version of their angsty, damaged adult daughter gave a well-examined view of a woman gradually righting her own ship, and Ronan Walsh pegged the preteen boy Norman warms to, making that relationship’s growth seem absolutely natural.
Andy Kresowski managed to avoid stereotype as the local guy once enamored of the Thayer daughter, making him far more genuine and less dim than sometimes portrayed. In a brief but important moment, Dave Edwards created a convincingly nervous yet resolute version of the man helping sort out the daughter’s life.
Kudos also to the set design of Mark Fredrickson, whose cabin proved so convincing you expected birds to fly by the windows. Yet, the feel of the entire production, from the ensemble spirit, through the unique renditions of characters made iconic on film, to the whole tone of subtle upbeat land at the feet of director Roxie Lee. Again, this is one of her finer moments, as it is for many in the small cast.
“On Golden Pond” can be sentimental bordering on goopy if done poorly. The Whittier production tread that fine line well. As one of the few remaining viable community theaters, now in its 92nd season no less, it bodes well for the future that this quality of performance can be expected there.
Next on the Whittier Community Theater list is the noir classic – also a famous film – “Laura,” due to open on Valentine’s Day. One hopes that they can keep going with this “new view of old classic” style, making that piece as much their own as they did “On Golden Pond.”
Hypothetical meetings of the famous or legendary of history have been a standard staple of playwrights and novelists for many, many years. Take, as example, “The Meeting,” which put Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X together. It can be a tantalizing question to consider: What would these people who never actually met say to each other? How would they handle their differences?
Now a new entry in that field has arrived in South Pasadena. “A Perfect Likeness” by Daniel Rover Singer offers some conjecture on what might happen if Charles Dodson (known to the world as Lewis Carroll) and Charles Dickens – two men of the same literary age but spectacularly different dispositions – ended up in the same room. The resulting piece could have been hokey in the extreme, but thanks to researched the contrivance it uses to bring them together proves quite convincing. A strong cast also helps.
Daniel J. Roberts is Dodson, the well bred, buttoned up Oxford don – a brilliant mathematician with a flair as an amateur photographer who invites Dickens (as Dodson actually did other literary giants) to sit for his camera. Bruce Ladd is the earthy, worldly, pulled up by his own bootstraps Dickens. They have little in common, it would seem, except they are both swept up in the power of words and a fascination with the changes of their age.
Roberts gives Dodson just enough hesitant decorum to match his surroundings. Still, he is able to also deliver a sense of the excitement held in check in a man doomed by his particular profession to, among other things, celibacy. Ladd gives Dickens that expansive quality for which he was known, yet makes him as observant and insightful as someone must be to write novelized exposes of the evils of his time.
All the basic elements are there: Dodson’s passion for the innocence of children, Dickens’ fascination with hypnotism and his inability to stay still. Although the process has been edited some for time constraints, it even gives a partial feel for what it would be like in that day and age to sit for a photo.
The set, also designed and built by playwright and director Singer, is a wonder in itself: the perfect Victorian don’s room, trinkets and all.
In the end, one appreciates the art and the accuracy. Dodson’s child photography is approached not as leering pedophilia but (especially since parents were always present) a genuine fascination with childhood as an experience – which seems to be borne out by modern scholars. Dickens’ grim starting place sometimes rumbles under a moment of flippancy, and his passion for the good life echoes his own and others’ statements about his later years.
In short, “A Perfect Likeness” proves charming, if not wildly deep, accurate in the important ways, and quite a satisfying evening. Stay after on some nights for readings by “the authors” from “their” works.
What: “A Perfect Likeness” When: Through December 22, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday Where: Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. in South Pasadena How Much: on Thursdays $20, seniors and students $15; Fridays through Sundays $25, seniors and students $20 Info: (866) 811-4111 or http://www.fremontcentretheatre.com
When the Pasadena Playhouse announced they were going to produce Reginald Rose’s classic “12 Angry Men,” I admit to being of two minds. On the one hand, this play is a time-honored and extraordinarily manipulate-able classic with terrific character parts. On the other, those very aspects mean it has been done and done and done, everywhere from TV (where it was born) to high school drama programs, to Broadway, in many different permutations. Knowing that the Playhouse is rarely about simple revivals, what else can be said about this piece?
What director Sheldon Epps has done is a two-fold adaptation. First, it is updated to the modern era thus losing much of the automatic tension created by its original hot, non-air-conditioned setting. Second, the cast – though still all-male – has been evenly divided between Caucasians and African-Americans, creating a different kind of tension. With the exception of a momentary cliche, this works, and the results contain all the intensity one expects when putting twelve men in a room together and locking the door.
Essentially, the “12 Angry Men” make up a jury. Post trial, they are locked in the jury room to decide the guilt or innocence of a teenaged boy accused of stabbing his father to death. Each brings his or her own baggage. None wants to be there. When they are challenged to look at the case more deeply, their scars, prejudices, and occasionally nobility, begin to surface.
Epps has collected an impressive cast, and, with them, created an intensity which keeps the drama in high gear. All twelve men work so well together in ensemble it becomes difficult to point to standouts, as each character – defined and specific as he may be – weaves tightly into the whole.
Still, particularly memorable are Jason George, whose direct and commanding chief protagonist is the one man in the group initially taking the concept of “reasonable doubt” most seriously. As his strongest adversary, Gregory North vibrates alpha male as the one person most deeply convicted of the boy’s guilt. Adolphus Ward gives the oldest man in the room a kind of worn dignity which rises as the show progresses, while Bradford Tatum typifies the citified red neck and most intractable and prejudiced of the crew.
By and large, the tale proves as riveting as always – perhaps more so, given the added racial overtone. Still, one could wish the casting had involved one switch, as the only cliche moment in the piece comes as the vote is split down the middle along a racial line. Yet, I cannot fault any performance as a performance, and the whole outweighs this single moment.
“12 Angry Men” always made the case for the quixotic nature of juries as applied to the death penalty. As much a thriller as a human drama, it will keep an audience who doesn’t already have the play memorized on the edge of its seats. What makes this particular production so attractive has to be the fact that knowing the ending does not in any way make the process of getting there any less involving. Certainly it is worth the watching, the acting is so very good.
What: “12 Angry Men” When: Through December 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
Loss hits each person differently, yet there are similarities which bind all of humanity together at such times. Even those who consider themselves straightforward, logical people can be so thrown by tragedy that the universe must shatter – at least for a while – and then rearrange itself into a new pattern of living. To bring this onto a public stage without turning it into a cliche or a Lifetime movie proves the greatest challenge, but one playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has overcome.
Which is why “Rabbit Hole”, now finishing a run as part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada Theatre, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize: it approaches the universal qualities of personal grief in an understated, and thus far more realistic way than most dramas, and also offers a keen portrait of a couple whose individual heartaches are balanced by an underlying, tenacious, mutual bond.
Becca and Howie, a fairly typical middle-class couple, wrestle daily with the aftermath of the accidental death of their 4-year-old son, who chased his dog into the path of an oncoming car. Their normalcy has edges, into which bump Becca’s flighty, irresponsible, and now pregnant younger sister, and her wry, quirky but observant mother. The strains between all of these people are evident, as they bounce off each other and wrestle with the process of moving forward. Yet, the connections seem to hold.
Deborah Puette is Becca, maintaining a stiff, almost obsessive normalcy amidst an increasing internal isolation. Michael Polak’s Howie moves between supportiveness and anger – some of it misplaced, but all of it sincere. Kristina Johnson gives Becca’s sister the oblivious and self-absorbed qualities which make her both an active irritant and a casual observer.
Lori Larsen’s entertainingly straightforward turn as Becca’s mother adds a certain kind of wisdom and patience into the entire environment. In a short, but important turn, Seamus Mulcahy creates a disarmingly innocent immaturity as the sincere teen who was driving on that fateful day.
All of this has been pulled into a natural, flowing cohesion by director Michael Matthews, who takes what is essentially a very episodic tale, and aided by Stephen Gifford’s modular, open set, turns it into a single story. And believe it or not, that story ends up not in grim detachment but in what actually happens, usually, in cases like this: the eventual movement back into life – peace, if not yet joy.
“Rabbit Hole” is funny, wrenching, sad and hopeful by turns. It holds a mirror up to relationship under stress, and a particularly intense aspect of the human condition in a way which is human, warm, and filled with connection. It is most certainly worth taking the time to take in.
What: “Rabbit Hole” When: Through November 17, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (526) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com
It is completely appropriate to this company that Furious Theatre’s return to the Carrie Hamilton Theatre upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse should come accompanied by a kick in the gut. Pushing boundaries, observing and decoding confrontation, and always the challenge to think – perhaps even to the point of having to look oneself in the mirror in a different way – is what Furious is about. Most assuredly the Los Angeles-area premiere of “Gidion’s Knot” by Johnna Adams provides all these things, and at Furious it provides them up close.
In “Gideon’s Knot” perhaps the most complicated kind of “knot” presents itself: Gideon, a 10-year-old boy, has killed himself. His mother shows up at the door of his 5th grade classroom to keep the parent-teacher conference she’d agreed to before the tragedy. There she works to tear up, or apart, the teacher she blames for her boy’s death, yet must confront the boy the teacher knew and she did not. In the end, there is fury and also hints at an answer, but it may not be the one the mother can handle.
Director Darin Anthony brings his audience intentionally, disquietingly close to the action, as the two women wrestle with each other and with tragedy. They sit in student desks around the edges of Aaron Francis’ recreated classroom, where Miss Clark is grading papers. The tears, the anger, the struggle in the midst of emotional upheaval to deconstruct a horrible event, all happen almost within arm’s length. This is also the point. This isn’t happening somewhere else. It is something shared. Immediate.
Paula Cale has the true aura of an elementary school teacher as Heather Clark: gentle but firm, emotionally connected to the doings in her classroom. Indeed, her character’s emotionalism is the weakness this parent-nemisis seeks to use to advantage. Still, she carries an underlying sense of solidity – of being on her home turf – which allows her some balance against the attack.
Vonessa Martin creates the furious, distraught Corryn Fell, Gideon’s mother, as a person caught between intellectualism and a need to both vent and blame, even if that emotion is also smoke-screen. As she circles the focus of her anger, and strikes at the most vulnerable points, she also allows us a physical sense of the chinks in her own armor. The two play extraordinarily well off of each other, keeping the tension of this play roaring throughout – but a tension which has the audience in a constant state of reevaluation.
“Gidion’s Knot” asks complicated questions, and lays the groundwork for just as complicated answers. It never talks down to its observers, leaving bits of that very knot to be unraveled slowly, just as it must be by the two women confronting each other in the script. And that is what one expects from this company: excellence, tension, things to think about and a few things left hanging in the air one breathes. Be aware, even the seating is not particularly about comfort. This play is performed without intermission, which makes complete sense as there is no way one could interrupt the emotional build happening in real time.
What: “Gidion’s Knot” When: Through November 24, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre, upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $20 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.furioustheatre.org
An interesting trend in American musical theater in the past few decades has been the creation of stage versions of classic movie musicals, rather than the other way around. Though making movies of Broadway shows had its own set of issues: expanding beyond a stage’s confines, reduction of the suspension of disbelief, or even the need to rework the thing to feel cohesive without an intermission, shrinking a movie has more. This is especially true of a film best known for its choreography.
Which is why any stage production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” such as the one at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, comes with an automatic challenge. The film, which generally has rather two-dimensional characters, has remained a favorite because of its dance sequences. Yet, those wildly energetic sequences could be filmed in sections – they didn’t have to be danced straight through. On stage, they must be. And, on stage, the balance between song and story and character and dance must be more even.
At Candlelight, they do manage to fit the tale to the size of their stage – a task all by itself. And, by and large, the dancing is good enough to keep the flow going. Some of the performers prove adept at giving significant humanity to the otherwise rather simplistic material. Still, it could use a few improvements.
The story is silly, but amusing. Adam Pontipee, a lumberman living with his six brothers in the wilds of the Northwest, comes to town for an infrequent visit to buy not only household supplies but a wife. When he meets Milly, a girl with no family, she agrees to marry him. The surpise for her at the end of her long journey is the number and condition of his younger siblings. Pretty soon she has the other Pontipee men anxious for brides of their own which, when they visit town, they capture and bring back to the hills just as winter hits.
Much of this is told in song and dance – particularly the hoedown dance-off prior to the girls’ abduction for which this show is so particularly well known.
Director/Choreographer Janet Renslow has a feel for the style which must be translated from the film. Her performers have a robust quality overall – a western hardiness. It must be admitted that some of her dancing ensemble struggle on occasion with the intense demands of these very physical sequences, but their enthusiasm continues to shine. And, for the most part, the central characters add to that with an earnest sincerity which keeps the show moving, and connected with the audience.
Stacy Huntington makes a charming Milly – tough but still romantic, practical and loving. All six of the brothers (Josh Taylor, Tyler Logan, Michael Milligan, Donald Pettit, Chaz Feuerstine and Ariel Neydavoud) have a kind of gangling charm, most particularly Neydavoud as the youngest, Gideon. The girls they scoop up (Sharon Jewell, Jessie Parmelee, Susanna Vaughan, Sierra Taylor, Rachel Burkert and Andrea Aron) also have that innate innocence which makes the show work, and dance very well – their major requirement.
Indeed, only Sam Zeller, as Adam, proves shaky. Part of this is not his fault, as he was cast into a part outside his vocal range at a theater with a prerecorded orchestral part allowing for no transposition. Some songs which should be belted out can barely be sung at all. They’re just too low. And, perhaps frustrated by this, he seems to perform in a kind of isolation. With the other characters connecting as well as they do, this begins to stand out and make his character seem more “acted” than the rest.
Still, for charm and warm-hearted enthusiasm, this “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” works a lot more than it doesn’t. The memorable songs and nostalgia factor work well, and when combined with a good meal, this all makes for a lighthearted evening. Stay tuned for their annual original Christmas show, coming up next.
What: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” When: Through November 24, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 meal inclusive, $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
In the trio of plays being done in repertory at A Noise Within this fall, the common theme is loss. “Pericles” loses his family. The Actor in “The Guardsman” loses faith in his wife. And then there is “Endgame,” the nihilistic Samuel Beckett play in which – quite literally – all is lost. Typical of absurdism, and certainly of Beckett, the how and the what are left fairly ambiguous, and the ends don’t tie up neatly, but the discussion of nothingness is, to a great extent, the point.
I have spent much of my life entertained by absurdism. The denial of societal norms, and the innate sense of the ridiculousness of life itself – aligned as it is with the inability to wrap anything up in a neat package – has appealed to me as an intellectual challenge, and sometimes as a source of wry, at times inexplicable humor.
Scholars will tell you absurdism informs the intellectual spirit of the mid-20th century. War, Fascism, Stalinism, and all of the many social movements and scientific expansions which seemed a denial of the foundations of western culture created a sense of purposeless and doom only enhanced by the nuclear age. Those who wrote of this, saw humanity as devoid of any real meaning – completely absurd, in the most vacant sense. This shines particularly brightly in “Endgame,” which works to codify humans in the era of nothingness.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Hamm, a man left blind and incapacitated by whatever it is which has destroyed everything. In trash cans near his wheelchair -ish throne exist his mother and father. Shuffling about the room is his servant, Clov. All is decay. Nothing has a point. Hamm and Clov discuss whether to live or die with dispassion. Empathy is gone. Habit defines purpose. There is no reason to do what they do. Nothing will improve, and the idea of anything moving forward is so terrifying they dare not let a flea live to procreate. Their greatest communal fear is that they should in some way mean something.
Director Geoff Elliott has set the play in the appropriately timeless otherwhere, redolent of decay, and crafted the stage patterns with a formative patterning which enhances the theme. His Hamm (he plays the lead as well) sits on a kind of throne on casters, immobilized by weight. As such, he never really leaves center stage.
There, his steady presence and rarely changing delivery, while epitomizing the senselessness of this particular kind of end of days, becomes a drone which proves as lulling as it does profound. It is admittedly difficult to give life to a character trapped in a chair – one of Beckett’s more theatrical points. Still, this calm approach to nothingness – when voice is all one can reach out with – should not be so devoid of emotion that the listener disconnects completely, even in a Beckett play.
Jeremy Rabb’s Clov is, by contrast, fully realized in his calm despair, even while his modulations are appropriately curtailed. And he does have the advantage of movement. His way of walking thus helps codify the undercurrent of the play. Rather than moving “stiffly,” as is often done, he has a fascinating, floor-bound shuffle and a pre-ordained set of paths which speak to the treadmill of life as profoundly as any other element. Indeed, as this movement winds down, it defines the vacancy which will come.
Mitchell Edmonds gives a particular bitter humor to Nagg, Hamm’s father occasionally produced from the trash can. Likewise, Jill Hill’s comparatively brief appearance from the other can as Hamm’s mother Nell keeps to the flavor and the rhythm of the play.
But Rabb and his interaction with Elliott are the essentials. In this they are aided by Jeanine A Ringer’s dry and angular backdrop-like set, and most specifically by the carefully crafted spaces created by Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting design. Even in nothingness one must have focus, and that is what Lawrence’s subtlety achieves.
As with much of Beckett’s work, plot and character do not tell you what this play is about. As modern society debates the fall of empires and the questionable meanings of life at present, it is good to look at a play about, well, nothing. And in Beckett’s hands that nothing says much about what has been, or may be lost.
As such, the three plays in repertory at A Noise Within create a full circle of human commentary, from the legendary and seemingly gods-driven misfortunes of a classical king, through the petty distrusts of the wealthy and famous, to the end of all human purpose. Quite a ride.
What: “Endgame” When: in repertory through November 23, 8 p.m. November 8, 9, 22 and 23, 7 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7:30 p.m. November 14, and 2 p.m. November 3, 9, 17 and 23. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
The Hungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar had an eye for human frailty. Even at his most comic, as in “The Guardsman,” there is an underlying framework of what seems almost a pity for the foibles of mankind. Still, that doesn’t mean that “The Guardsman” isn’t also very funny, if well played.
Now in repertory at A Noise Within, Molnar’s “Guardsman” aims for the silliness of it all. As many of his day did, Molnar makes ferocious fun of famous actors, in this case by playing them off each other. They are naturally narcissistic. Everything about their lives is artificial. How could they possibly search for genuine emotion, or even recognize it if it appeared?
Freddy Douglas is The Actor, a well-known performer married to an actress delighted by the adoration of her fans. As their initially wild passion has faded into domesticity, he becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him, and so he decides to test her. He woos her, first with letters and finally in costume and make-up, as a military officer – a guardsman – to see if she will succumb to the charms of another.
Douglas plays his character delightfully over the top, and yet with an undercurrent of elemental insecurity. His portrait of the guardsman, as obvious and ridiculous as it is, still vibrates with a kind of desperate hope. Against him, Elyse Mirto has a lovely time as the sweepingly commanding Actress. Bearing always an aura of command, she sweeps through rooms like a force of nature. Are the arguments of these two a chance to make a scene, or are they genuine? Is the actress fooled by her husband’s ruse, or is she playing him as she does the piano?
Director Michael Michetti finds the balance necessary to make this production work – allowing the overly-dramatic sweeps of feeling, while keeping the humanity of his overblown characters consistently on the actor’s minds. With this, the play turns, not into farce, but into a more grounded comedy. If that sometimes make the laughs somewhat smaller, the net result is worth it.
Aiding in the wild world the central characters inhabit are a fine collection of supporting players. Wendy Worthington proves practical and protective as the peasant dresser The Actress has hired to act as her mother on a daily basis. Sasha Pasternak becomes the overwhelmed innocent as their newest maid – overwhelmed by the sheer emotion flowing through the house. Todd Andrew Ball makes very funny work of the creditor always being put off by a couple delightedly living beyond their means, and Judy Durning has a brief but likable turn as the usher controlling access to The Actress’ box at the opera.
Yet, it is Robertson Dean who gets handed the role most to be envied: the one voicing Molnar’s own commentaries, as the practical theater critic who has known the couple on and offstage for many years. As the one character grounded in reality, he proves the only one able to step into and out of the hyper-emotional world the others inhabit, and – as played by Dean – provides an innate steadiness which keeps righting the ship before it founders completely.
In short, “The Guardsman” was never intended to be deep, but by playing it for meaning as well as for farce, it becomes something more than sheer silliness. As such, it offers fun and just a tiny bit of introspection, mystery with just a small gut-level feeling of recognition. It’s not a bad thing to get some thought with your laughter, even in a play this silly.
What: “The Guardsman” When: in repertory through November 30: 8 p.m. November 1, 2, 15, 16, and 30, 2 p.m. November 2, 10, and 30, 7 p.m. November 10, and 7:30 p.m. November 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
Of all of the plays published in editions of Shakespeare’s complete works, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” has the most tenuous connection with him. Most, though not all scholars believe it to be only about half by Shakespeare – a fact which seems backed up by the comparatively clumsy poetry in certain sections of the work. As a story, it proves the Shakespearean equivalent of a soap opera – rife with coincidence, supposed deaths, and tormented souls which, though not unusual in Elizabethan drama in general, is over the top (or at least overly two dimentional) for the Bard.
For this reason, “Pericles” is not often produced. If a company chooses to take it on, they must play it absolutely straight – a tough task with a storyline so camp. Which brings us to the production currently one of three plays in repertory at A Noise Within, in Pasadena. Here, this episodic and ridiculous tale proves entertaining in part because of the quality of the acting, in part because of a set and vision which take it out of time and work well on an audience’s “imaginary forces”, and in part because it is played absolutely as if it is the best thing the Bard ever wrote.
The tale is of the young king of Tyre, who goes adventuring upon the waves. As a good hero must, he finds a lovely princess he can only win if he solves a riddle. The problem is, when he does it infuriates the asker, who orders him killed. He runs, is shipwrecked, falls for another princess, marries her and then must run again. Another shipwreck, a supposed death in childbirth, a fantastical waterproof burial at sea, a bride on a beach who becomes a temple votress. Our hero parks his newborn baby with a friendly royal in another land. Later, jealousy, a princess in a brothel saving her virginity with noble speech, and after more death threat-driven, salt-laden travels, Pericles reappears and the entire family reunites. Got it?
Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has a penchant for creating a commedia-esque chorus for her Shakespearean productions, and here it works to keep things light and appropriately otherworldly. Combined with Jeanine A. Ringer’s versatile, compartmentalized wall-as-set and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes – themselves a fantastical whirlwind of eras and styles – the entire piece is allowed a constant, upbeat pacing, and firmly planted in the world of fantasy.
Jason Dechert is, for most of the tale, the consistently honorable, consistently thwarted young Pericles. His earnestness and emotional engagement keep the play moving. As the three central princesses who affect his life, Jules Willcox manages to shift character enough keep the three as specific entities with separate reactions to our hero prince. Guiding us through their various adventures as narrator is the clown-like Gower, given authority and an interesting spin by Deborah Strang.
Jane Macfie gives the combined role of Dionyza (no ruler of her land, instead of the wife of one) a balance of warmth and conniving necessary to put Pericles’ daughter in peril. Michael Stone Forrest has a ball as the warm king of the warm land from which Pericles receives a bride. As the warped old king whose anger threatens our prince, and as the aged Pericles finally home from his wanderings, Thomas Tofel creates two very distinct people – one conniving, and one at the end of his rope.
Supporting them, in a variety of essential but changing roles is a solid ensemble, some becoming singular characters, others acting as crowd and back-up chorus to Gower. Through them this flow which makes the play work moves on fairly seamlessly. And that is the greatest challenge of this work, other than taking it seriously: keeping the audience engaged while the story hops gleefully all over the Mediterranean.
In the end, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” is still a problematic bit of Shakespeare. However, it’s fun to see it done with such verve and intention. Certainly, it is a challenge to its performers, particularly those who embody many different guises during the course of the story. For a play rarely done, and even more rarely done well, this is a Shakespeare nut’s treat and an education for everyone else.
What: “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” When: in repertory through November 24: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m. Thursday Nov. 7, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, November 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org