Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Farce with Force: “What the Butler Saw” at the Taper

L-R: Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton (background) and Charles Shaughnessy in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at the Mark Taper Forum.  [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

L-R: Paxton Whitehead, Sarah Manton (background) and Charles Shaughnessy in Joe Orton’s “What the Butler Saw” at the Mark Taper Forum.
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Farce, as a theatrical art form, is often seen as simply a ridiculous chasing about – fun and funny, but not particularly intellectually derived. Indeed, many typical farces are. Still, on occasion the ridiculous backdrop of a farcical situation can be used to make pointed, even cutting remarks about society at large, all in the guise of silliness.

One example of this is the Joe Orton classic, “What the Butler Saw,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. Though the net result is a guffaw-inducing, the underlying messages are actually far more savage. This 1963 piece, produced first only after its author’s murder, examines with great bitterness the state of government’s encroachment on people’s lives, using British Health’s psychological services as a vehicle. Now, though some of its material starts out feeling a bit dated from a feminist (or even “aware of rape culture”) perspective, it is still wins one over as just that: a mocking send-up of bureaucracy.

This aided by an absolutely splendid cast, whose timing – thanks in part to director John Tillinger – proves so tight that every bit of physical comedy works exactly as it should, and whose characterizations allow for just enough empathy to keep the audience connected.

Charles Shaughnessy plays a psychologist running a British in-patient mental hospital. Estranged from his rampantly sexual wife, he had developed a casting couch approach to his kingdom – an approach he is about to try out on a new and innocent young secretarial applicant. Frances Barber plays his wife, whose latest encounter with a bellhop has led to a possible blackmail, if her husband can’t hire the male bellhop as a new secretary instead of the innocent young girl already on the couch. How to make that happen pushes her toward the scotch bottle.

Paxton Whitehead, as the doctor’s pompous superior, come to inspect the hospital, provides some of the greatest comedy as he half-hears, misdiagnoses, and sparks the craziest parts of the play, all the while thinking of how to publish his outrageous “discoveries” to achieve greater fame. The chemistry between the three makes the piece work, aided over and over again by Sarah Manton’s gentle but determined young secretary, Angus McEwan’s completely gonad-driven bellhop, and Rod McLachlan’s authoritative, then bemused police sergeant.

James Noone’s brightly lit, glaringly open office space, graced with the necessary multitude of openings, sets the tone for the inspired farcical chasings about. The requisite doors slam, as mistaken identities, hidden agendas, and the senior doctor’s silly imaginings and misinterpretations create greater and greater havoc. Laughing out loud is almost guaranteed, from the beautifully executed physical comedy as well as the sheer silliness of the plot twists. Indeed, once a certain amount of rather disquieting exposition is out of the way at the start, the piece inspires roars of laughter over and over.

Which is all to say “What the Butler Saw” – the non sequitur of the title notwithstanding – proves highly entertaining. Still, and this would fit Orton’s “Angry Young Man” time period, it is also an bitter commentary on vapid human connection, and the misuse of power. When you step back you begin to see it, delivered though it is with the syrup of belly laughs. And though the play may be 51 years old, that dark undercurrent still rings disturbingly true.

What: “What the Butler Saw” When: Through December 21, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Romance, Tragedy, and a Lesson: “Stop Kiss” stuns at the Pasadena Playhouse

Angela Lina and Sharon Leal in "Stop Kiss" at the Pasadena Playhouse.  [Photo by Jim Cox]

Angela Lina and Sharon Leal in “Stop Kiss” at the Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo by Jim Cox]

There is no greater way to expand the understanding and empathy of people towards those not like themselves than by finding a story which becomes common ground. That’s perhaps the simplest way to “put a face” on an issue which may not otherwise resonate with the majority. That may also be the most important factor in the newest venture at the Pasadena Playhouse.

In Diana Son’s “Stop Kiss,” there are two central themes: the gradual development of a strong relationship that solidifies into love, and a violent act which rips the warmth from that story yet also does much to solidify its definition. The two themes unfold at the same time, allowing the audience to process both violation and relationship in an intertwined, very powerful way.

In essence, the tale is one of Callie, a long-time New Yorker, and the friend-of-a-friend newly moved from St. Louis, Sara. Callie’s social life hangs upon her college relationships, as she surfs a high profile but unsatisfying job and lands the perks of “who you know” as a city-dweller. Sara brings with her an idealism, having received a grant to spend two years teaching 3rd grade in the Bronx, and a sense of forward motion Callie has missed. The two click immediately, becoming fast friends moving slowly but inexorably toward something more. Then, at the moment of transition, their world shatters in a hate crime.

Angela Lin makes a genuine, worldly yet innocent Callie, secure in her world, yet still searching for meaning and connection. Sharon Leal exudes a personal confidence as Sara which, even though counteracted by her initial sense of being a New York outsider, leads to an expansion of both her own and Callie’s view of their worlds.

As Callie’s guy friend and occasional bootie call, John Sloan provides the symbol of her life before the play begins – one lived at arms length from true emotional connection. Brandon Scott, as the young man Sara left behind, provides a view of her own, solidly Midwestern, interconnected roots. Jeff de Serrano offers up the classic detective, hammering for facts and thus making Callie face home truths. Amanda Carlin, though also a hospital nurse, makes the most impact as the witness to the attack who calls police: empathetic but from a distance.

Director Seema Sueko uses David F. Weiner’s easily shifting set pieces to switch back and forth from the charm of a New York apartment to the chill of a street with great swiftness, keeping the pace going and thus the two tensions moving as well. In this play, performed without intermission to also avoid a break in the elemental flow, this proves key. Combine that with the charm, the sheer likability of the two main characters as portrayed, and one simply cannot look away. In the end, the responses of everyone onstage achieve a natural quality which may even be the point, but certainly lets the dramatic endings sync together like a resolved fugue.

“Stop Kiss” was written in 1998. What is both warming and sad about that fact is that the very scenarios described therein could happen today, 16 years later. Some of what is discussed is, for the traditional Playhouse audience, a bit controversial. Yet, that is not at the core of why one should see this lovely piece. Love, trauma, shattered dreams, and new realizations are foundational to many beloved moments in the theater. The themes do not change because the characters are different.

But then, of course, seeing them applied to these characters offers a chance to find that face, albeit a fictional one: that character (or characters) which can humanize an issue, and create the very empathy which brings an understanding and helps a society to move forward. Seems a tall order for a small relationship play, but it could be a start. This especially when the production is as fine, as moving, and as meaningfully intense as the one at Pasadena Playhouse.

What: “Stop Kiss” When: Through November 30, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $45 – $75, plus premium seating for $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Tighter Staging will Save the King! – “The Lion In Winter” in Whittier

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier's "The Lion in Winter"

William Crisp as Henry II confronts his sons in Whittier’s “The Lion in Winter”

On the short list of 20th century playwrights whose work I love in part because if their rich use of language, James Goldman is right up there. Take, as example, his play “The Lion in Winter.” In many ways it proves very talky, but this drama pitting King Henry II of England against his sons, his imprisoned wife, and the King of France remains a constant favorite because the characterizations are rich, and the talk is clever, fast-paced and unrelentingly poetic. It’s a feast for the both the imagination and the ear.

Yet this can all careen off the tracks if the pace is too slow, or broken up too much. Heat drives this play, and heat onstage dissipates quickly if not constantly fed. Which brings me to the new production at Whittier Community Theater. The cast is, particularly in the two most central parts, excellent. The costuming and feel of the piece are right. But constant breaks in the pacing, caused by the need to move furniture between each one of the short vignette-like scenes, make it excruciatingly long. In the process, that elemental heat cools.

This is fixable, but it will take some creative restaging along the way. That would be wonderful, because rather than listening to an audience groan at the length, it would be terrific to be able to embrace this show for all the things it does right. They are many.

William Crisp makes a terrific Henry – playing the elaborate game of political competition with relish, bringing a consistency to this medieval king even as he is wound-able, strong, afraid of aging, and admiring of intellect equal to his own. Candy Beck tackles the prodigious Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, nemesis, equal, and prisoner let out for Christmas. In a subtle supporting role, and despite a somewhat questionable wig, Jamie Sowers proves on a par with these two powerful and powerfully played characters as the young Alais, sister to the King of France, raised at Henry’s court to be the next queen, yet become Henry’s mistress. Her subtle strength makes her less of a pawn than often played, leading to a particular inclusion in this fascinating trio.

The portraits of Henry’s three sons are a bit variable, though they power the piece when necessary. Colin McDowell’s Richard the Lionheart manages the mix of fragility and power necessary, but tends to deliver his lines in a comparatively hollow tone. Jonathan Tupanjanin makes Prince John just as much a spoiled child as is necessary. Thanks to one mention of his being pimply in the script, he has been given facial spots which look like large measles or major melanomas, and are very distracting. Acne is a bit more subtle, even onstage.

Brandon Ferruccio makes middle son Geoffrey as frankly devious as can be, becoming the most memorable of the sons. Despite another odd wig, Luke Miller makes the young king of France subtly mature and even more subtly as devious in his own way as Geoffrey. It’s an interesting take on the character.

Karen Jacobson and Nancy Tyler are to be celebrated for finding costumes which truly fit the characters and the time period. Set designer Mark Frederickson has created the impression of a medieval castle, which sets the tone, but as used may also be creating much of the problem.

In the hands of director Lenore Stjerne, every scene is centrally staged, and uses the entire set. This means that between each scene lights dim, stagehands come out and move furniture, place or replace candles, hang tapestries, etc. – a project which can take 3 minutes or so. That’s too long, as pacing is key to effectiveness in this play. The use of “trucks,” which allow the quick wheeling in and out of setting pieces, or simply isolating some scenes in one part of the stage which is preset for the purpose, would solve this show’s one major problem and let people go home about a half hour earlier.

And that would be good, because this version of “The Lion in Winter” is definitely worth seeing, especially for the performances of the two leads. Hopefully the timing glitches will be solved by the start of the second weekend.

What: “The Lion in Winter” When: through November 22, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m. matinee on Sunday November 16 Where: The Center Theater, Whittier Community Center, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors/students/military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

A Lighthearted Dose of Good vs Evil: “Pope! An Epic Musical” at Theatre Unleashed

The cast of Pope! The Epic Musical, being epic

The cast of Pope! The Epic Musical, being epic

Musicals come in several forms. The classic Great American Musical uses its songs to advance the plot, has beautifully choreographed (and sometimes significant to the plot itself) dance numbers, and other elements which define the high end of that art form. Newer forms border on opera, where the music cannot be divorced from the plot. Old 20s musicals are sillier, easy to parody, and full of tunes which have entered the American Songbook.

And then there are the musicals where the music’s just a conduit for keeping things lighthearted – a way to ensure that the general silliness has a platform to stand on. Such a show is the west coast premiere production of “Pope! An Epic Musical” now at Theatre Unleashed in North Hollywood. With book and lyrics by Justin Moran and music by Christopher Pappas, the thing flows with great rapidity, scattering site gags and ridiculous suppositions with great abandon. It’s an entertainment, through and through.

In its silliness this show does have a basic point, but must be (and is) played impressively tongue in cheek. A young man whose name actually is Pope, yearns from an early age to achieve that lofty position. He does, and uses it as a bully pulpit for celebrating the good in life and in people. As such he incurs the wrath of an evil archbishop who connives to unseat him and establish a new inquisition in his place.

Makes for pretty good melodrama, especially if the results prove as over the top as this musical offering demands.

Jase Lindgren is the earnest, innocent and youthful Pope, straightforward in his approach and stunned at his condemnation. As the girl with a lifelong crush on him, who chooses the convent and thus saves him, Sammi Lappin sings well and has some particularly clever moments. Shawn Cahill makes the Archbishop the kind of melodramatic villain usually twirling a mustachio and ordering women be tied to train tracks. He has a great time in the process, and drives the piece more than any other cast member.

Also worthy of special note in an enthusiastic and versatile cast is R. Benito Cardenas, very, very funny as Cardinal Duncan – a man so desperate for a friend he willingly jumps in as the Archbishop’s central henchman. Jude Evans also deserves special credit, as he plays not one, not two, but three different characters including Jesus himself. Mark Lopez offers a most comic moment as God.

Essentially, as put together by director Gregory Crafts, this thing is just fast-paced, cleverly designed fun. Nothing in it, especially the Catholic hierarchy is intended to be accurate. By the same token, do not expect the moments of a cappella religious-sounding music to be as tonal as you expect. The vocal approximations work, because the whole thing is a bit “off” on purpose.

A special nod to the uncredited costumer who creates the ultimate quick-change approximations of collars, habits and such that allow swift shifts in character and setting without much need for a set.

“Pope! An Epic Musical” is that oddly delightful mix of comic books, Monty Python-esque satire, foolishness, and good ol’ “innocent goodness defeats calculating villainy” destined to make you leave with a smile even as it doesn’t bear much in the way of close examination. So, go laugh it up. There’s still a bit of time before the end of the run.

What: “Pope! An Epic Musical” When: Through November 17, 8 p.m. Saturday and Monday, 7 p.m. Sunday Where: The Belfry Stage, Upstairs at the Crown, 11031 Camarillo St. in North Hollywood How Much: $15 (or make a $5+ donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure and name your own price) Info: (818) 849-4039 or http://www.theatreunleashed.com

Quick and Silly: “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” from Parson’s Nose Productions

The cast of "The Pied Piper of Hamlin" looking suspicious at Parson's Nose

The cast of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” looking suspicious at Parson’s Nose

Note: I was given incorrect information. This show is DEFINITELY for children, and should not have been listed as only for people 12 and up, but rather 8 and up. Please bring kids. They’ll have a ball.

The Parson’s Nose Productions theater company has a unique, and admirable, vision. Founded 15 years ago to bring live theater in palatable bits to those who have never been exposed to the classics, it has performed its condensed, minimalist versions of everything from Shakespeare to folk tales in many different venues, always with the purpose of sparking interest in the theatrical medium, not only for potential performers, but for the growth and nurture of an audience.

Their latest venture, and first “full production” (as opposed to staged reading) this season is an in-house musical adaptation of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin.” Creative, silly, and filled with action and movement, it is certain to charm children, and appeal to the adults who bring them as well.

In this rendition, Hamlin is famous for cheese-making, and the two families vying for prominence as the finest of the cheese makers are the Klutzes and the Butzes. As they concentrate on their competition, and on the acquisition of those items which will display their wealth, they neglect their town and their children. The rats come to eat the cheese bits lying about. The children look for something beyond their parents’ materialism.

Which makes this all sound much more serious than it is. The very juxtaposition of an obvious message and innate silliness makes the show work. The music – innocuous though not memorable – allows for enough song and dance to keep the show limber. The performers, some of whom are called upon to play several parts, do so with an enthusiasm and crisp pacing. The hour-long performance flashes by.

James Calvert and Christina Carlisi, as the two fathers, vibrate with indignation, bust buttons with pride, and offer up charmingly stereotypical views of men obsessed with position. Marisa Chandler and Susan Keller, as the two mothers, sweep into scenes with pompous pride, all the time emphasizing the fairy tale quality of the piece. This is accented by costuming (by Holly Victoria) and make-up which make them seem remarkably similar to the characters painted on traditional porcelains of eastern Europe.

As the children, Tilsit and Gouda (underscoring the family obsessions), Ben Campbell and Jessica Evans prove likable and earnest, creating the obvious contrast between these imaginative and innocent individuals and their grasping elders. The choice to use adult actors to play these parts works well for the plot, and underscores the fantasy elements of this tale.

In a triple-contribution which rarely works for productions, but does this time, the group’s co-founder Lance Davis, who wrote and presumably also directed this venture, acts as narrator (when a rat) and mayor of the town to fine effect. Jill Rogosheske makes a thoughtful, even tempered piper. Several members of the cast double as rats, when needed, with an easy, clever costuming that is both well crafted and suitable for the quick changes the show demands.

Carlisi, Calvert and Evans also provide the choreography – occasionally formal, more often a take on folk movement, which is part of this show’s charm. Indeed, the movement, intensity and pacing are the highlights. The performers sing with great enthusiasm, though not always with concert-like accuracy, and the story sweeps along so quickly that one blinks and it is over.

The creatively low-budget set and props are made to travel, and I’m sure this will. The audience – many of whom were children – stayed engaged throughout, and came away buzzing with enthusiasm.

More importantly, this is one of the purposes of theater in today’s world: engaging those who would not otherwise set foot in a theater with the charm and immediacy of live performance. Not only children, though they were obviously a focus for this show (even though the thing is advertised only for kids 12 and up), but adults, as the rest of their planned season underscores.

Informationally, this upcoming season rolls forward with the ubiquitous “A Christmas Carol”, followed by a series of comedies now part (even if sometimes a mild part) of the theatrical imagination: “The Barber of Seville” (not the opera, the original play), “The Madwoman of Chaillot”, and finally “Our American Cousin” – now known mostly as the comedy Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was shot.

What: “The Pied Piper of Hamlin (A Musical)” When: Through November 23, 7 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: Lineage Performing Arts Center, 89 S. Fair Oaks Ave. in Pasadena How Much: “Pay As You Will” ($20 suggested) Info: (626) 403-7667 or http://www.parsonsnose.com

Oh the Horror! : Candlelight Pavilion makes the most of “Jekyll and Hyde”

Michael Scott Harris, as he transitions from the peaceful Dr. Jekyll to the notoriously evil Mr. Hyde, at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: John LeLonde]

Michael Scott Harris, as he transitions from the peaceful Dr. Jekyll to the notoriously evil Mr. Hyde, at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: John LeLonde]

Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson first penned “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” its particular examination of the nature of good and evil, and the balance of these qualities in the ordinary person, have proved fascinating. Though many today are not as familiar with Stevenson’s complex novella as they are with the more than 123 films based on it, the term “Jekyll and Hyde” has entered the English language, as a way to refer to someone with vastly different behaviors under different circumstances.

The stage has not been immune to this fascination either, and in one of the more recent dramatizations, the musical “Jekyll and Hyde” made it to Broadway in the late 90s and stayed there for nearly 4 years. Like many of its counterparts on Broadway at the time, this version by Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn is operatic in style. Its focus stays mainly on the well-meaning Dr. Henry Jekyll, his experiments to remove evil from mankind, and the creation of the totally evil Edward Hyde – whose strength of personality gradually consumes the gentler but thus weaker Jekyll.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, this musical version is not without its issues. Though the production is tight and well performed, the music and lyrics sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Still, the essence of the story survives, there are some strong characters. The show’s hit song, “This is the Moment,” which proves so pivotal, remains as powerful as ever. Much of the production’s success comes thanks to a strong, vocally impressive cast and a particularly elaborate setting for this small theater.

Michael Scott Harris virtually carries this piece, as Jekyll/Hyde. The transformations he makes from carefully appropriate doctor to vengeful wanton are brilliant – changes of voice, of carriage and articulation which take the audience along seamlessly as he shifts back and forth. In this he is well supported by Amy Gillette as Jekyll’s understanding, upper crust fiancé, and Laura Dickinson’s warm-hearted, easily abused prostitute, each of whom holds their versions of this one man in their hearts and passions. The singing in all these cases, honed to fit the characters, proves rich and sophisticated, leading the story along.

Also worthy of note are Richard Bermudez as Jekyll’s lawyer and longtime friend – the man who pushes hard to figure out what is going on, and Bob Bell as Jekyll’s future father-in-law, loving but deeply concerned. Beyond this a large and versatile cast play everything from street urchins to bishops with fervor and intelligence. Director Jason James uses the complex stage well, and just about the only thing one could wish for is that some of the set pieces would not make quite so much noise, rolling in behind active scenes.

Janet Renslow recreates the choreography from the original with style – often as much movement as it is dancing, and by and large the thing looks and feels as edgy and mysterious as it should. In short, for someone looking for a different way to feel spooky around the Halloween period, this is a fun one to see.

Note: this story is essentially an adult one. A number of characters are prostitutes plying their wares, and the changes in Jekyll, which are often quite vivid, might be disturbing to younger children. Although there may be a dish on the dinner menu for children, I would think twice about bringing them below a more sophisticated age.

What: “Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical” When: Through November 23, doors opening for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: (meal inclusive) $53 – $68 general, $25 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: More of same, but still fun

Maripat Donovan is Sister, in her 6th edition of "Late Night Catechism," where "Sister Throws the Dice".

Maripat Donovan is Sister, in her 6th edition of “Late Night Catechism,” where “Sister Rolls the Dice”.

In the six years since Maripat Donovan began her stint as Sister in “Late Night Catechism” people have been charmed by the humorous, though not bitingly satiric, homage to traditional Catholic doctrine this supposed teaching nun delivers. After the long initial runs of the original work, Donovan and her writing partner/director Marc Silvia have taken Sister’s evening catechism lectures in many different directions.

The newest of these, “Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice,” involves Sister’s plans to fund-raise using a Vegas Night. First she wants to try out her newly minted magic and card trick skills on her evening class. Now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, thanks to the McCoy-Rigby Series, the new show has many of the qualities which have made LNC such a franchise: wry wit, sincerity and an atmosphere reminiscent of a particular kind of gleeful amateurism (though, of course, Donovan is no amateur).

All the most popular bits are there: the casual inclusion of elemental Catholicism (prayer cards are handed out, saints are invoked, and even the magic tricks have occasional flickers of iconography), the question and answer segments, the insistence on respectful behavior. And yet, as always, the show is more than the sum of its parts, in great measure because of Donovan’s ownership if Sister. She gets this woman – the way she thinks, the way she copes with mistakes or outrageous questions or even inappropriate clothing. As the character shows love of life, so the audience shows love of the character.

The Las Vegas theme is a bit free-form, however, made up more than usually of ad libs based on audience participation. This may add to the silliness quotient, but it leaves little for the “class” time – the wonderfully free-form interpretations of Catholicism which have been the trademark of earlier LNC renditions. Still, the fun is there, and by the time Donovan gives her usual pitch for funds for local nuns in retirement (the last time in La Mirada it bought a local nuns’ retirement home a van), the audience is ready to give back after an evening of light, airy, silly entertainment.

The night I saw it was particularly lacking in folks who were Catholic, which is really too bad. Those raised in Catholic schools, or in the church itself, are usually those who laugh the loudest. Still, those who were there were having a great time. One word of warning: if you sit close to the front be sure you’re wearing clothing you’d want the rest of the audience to see, as you are very likely to be asked to stand, or even go onstage. I’m sure at least one person so called upon, on opening night, wished they’d been warned.

What: “Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice” When: Through November 16, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310, or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Marital Strife in Extremes: “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of "The Dance of Death" at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Long before Edward Albee’s portrait of a manipulative, wretched, psychologically sadistic marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there was August Strindberg. A man whose view of matrimony can be gleaned from the 19th century playwright’s four unsuccessful marriages, Strindberg examined the twists and turns of relationship in several works, but never created a more mutually vicious version than that in “The Dance of Death.”

Now opened as the third leg of their three-play fall repertory, the production of this work at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates an equally stunning portrait of deeply psychological marital dysfunction, laid out in front of a guest who finds himself gradually swept up in the grimly manipulative human interactions there. A new translation by Conor McPherson, receiving its west coast premiere, brings this play out of the somewhat dated tonalities often associated with “classic” works into a contemporary language framework which makes the play both more accessible and more disturbing.

Co-Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct this one “straight”, allowing the ferocity and isolation of the characters’ worlds to create movement without the unnecessary embellishments which sometime cloud their productions. The result is stark but continually interesting. Like watching a train-wreck, you just can’t look away from these two as they destroy the world around them. Even for the third character onstage, and certainly for us out there in the dark, that the point.

Elliott is Edgar, an aging misanthrope whose self-absorption and sloth have kept him a low ranking army officer assigned to a bleak island outpost. He has no friends, no money, possibly no food, but vibrates with a strangely concocted dignity nonetheless. Susan Angelo is Edgar’s wife of nearly 25 years, Alice. A former actress yearning for the life she could have led, she mourns absent children and concocts plots to overthrow her husband.

Into this world comes Alice’s cousin Kurt, played by Eric Curtis Johnson. An earnest man of significant rank, he has demons of his own to deal with, but soon falls into the clutches of these relatives who devour his finer sensitivities over the course of the play’s two hours.

Angelo and Elliott prove a fine match, with energy levels and intensities so similar the whole piece becomes an unpredictable fencing bout. Likewise Johnson provides an interesting counterbalance to all that ferocity, and proves subtle in his changes from compassion to an increasing loss of veneer. Indeed, this may be the most difficult part in the play – to change while those around you essentially do not.

Angela Balogh Calin has created an interesting set – at once solid and see-through. It makes for unique symbolism, but removes some of what would seem to be elemental claustrophobia implied in the script. Her costume designs, on the other hand, quickly and accurately evoke the needed elements of attitude, class and title, like visual shorthand.

“The Dance of Death” provides a fascinating character study, and – as with Albee’s later play – considerable meat for discussion. Its view of marriage as a death match, and its dismissal of the collateral damage are disturbingly timeless, making it surprising the play isn’t done more often. Perhaps this new translation will help change that, so that like “Miss Julie,” this Strindberg work becomes a part of the canon.

In the meantime, though not for the faint of heart, “The Dance with Death” is well worth seeing. Just don’t expect something Halloween-y. Sadly, its Poe-esque name has already led to some misconceptions in that department.

What: “The Dance of Death” When: in repertory with “The Tempest” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 8 p.m. October 24, 25, 31, and November 15; 7:30 p.m. October 30; 7 p.m. November 9 and 23; 2 p.m. October 25, November 15 and November 23 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush with ID, group rates available Info: (626) 356-3100, ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

An Ode to Human Connection: “4,000 Miles” in Sierra Madre

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in "4,000 Miles," now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in “4,000 Miles,” now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

It is rare for a small, essentially community-based theater like Sierra Madre Playhouse to receive a chance for the Los Angeles premiere of a high profile play, but it has happened. Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer-nominated “4,000 Miles” has arrived at the small theater to much fanfare. The play, which looks at the interaction between an idealistic, somewhat immature young man who has bicycled across the country and the leftist grandmother he ends up staying with in New York City, offers a few statements on growth, on city vs small town activism, and on what the maturation process really means.

The tale starts with the arrival of Leo at the New York apartment in the middle of the night. Thrown by the rejection felt from the girlfriend he’d hoped to connect with (recently landed in NYC herself), he ends up staying with Vera, the wife of his late grandfather. As she teaches him focus and responsibility, he opens up about the horror of his cross-country bike journey, and gradually they both come to understand one another. It’s not that he will stay in the city, but perhaps now there is a link which will survive the distances.

Christian Prentice makes a great Leo – handsome if rough-hewn, overflowing with energy and opinion, slow to learn to listen. He makes a fine foil for Mimi Cozzens, as Vera, a woman used to being alone but gradually and increasingly glad of the comparatively non-standard company. Their best moment comes in a scene in which Leo introduces Vera to a bong, producing genuine laughter onstage and off.

Alexandra Wright makes fine work of Leo’s erstwhile girlfriend, displaying all the confident maturity and practicality he seems at first to be incapable of. In a brief, but very funny scene, Susane Lee has a great time with the Chinese-American girl Leo picks up one night, who cannot get over the fact Vera has “The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao” on display in her living room.

Director Christian Lebano has taken this rather talky play and given it as much legs as one can. John Vertrees’ beautiful set – complete with a background scene which got – and deserved – its own applause, makes a very realistic apartment for these folks to inhabit, though in some ways it becomes claustrophobic. But then, that may also be a point.

If there is any issue, it comes from Cozzens’ portrayal. Vera is to be occasionally forgetful, but Cozzens makes her, if anything, more so. Indeed, the hemming and hawing happens so often it begins to look less like the script and more like an actress struggling for lines. This is too bad, as the best moments are rich and filled with a special kind of wisdom and fatalism which comes with intelligent aging.

Still, “4,000 Miles” has a lot to say about adaptation, maturing, and the conflicting agendas of various generations. It’s worth a look as a picture of one corner of the American landscape. That is what made the Pulitzer folk take a close look. One note: the play is not recommended by the theater for children under 16, due to adult language and situations

What: “4,000 Miles” When: Through November 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87. W Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (15-22) Not recommended for children under 16 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Timeless Silliness: “The Importance of Being Earnest” at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]”

Of all the works of Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” remains the most commonly produced. This, in part, because the tale is so silly, and in part because it pillories pomposity and rigid morality with such complete delight. Making fun of vapidity, the class system, and the spoiled is always a hit.

Now in a very classy new rendition at A Noise Within, the show offers up some interesting choices, a beautiful setting, and all of that satisfyingly uncomplicated humor. It makes for a relaxing, entertaining evening.

The tale, for someone who somehow has not managed to bump into the thing before, is essentially this: Jack Worthing, a country squire with responsibilities for a young and impressionable ward, has created an alternate persona so he can be frivolous when in London: a fictional brother named Earnest, whose name he adopts upon arrival in the city. As such he becomes engaged to Gwendolyn, the daughter of a noblewoman, who states she cannot marry anyone whose name is not Earnest.

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jack’s closest city friend, Algernon, already adroit at telling tales to avoid social obligations, adopts the persona of Earnest in order to ingratiate himself with Jack’s ward in the country, Cecily. Indeed, he proposes to her. Then Cecily and Gwendolyn meet, and this becomes complicated, to say the least, as they discover they are both engaged to Earnest Worthing. Comedy ensues.

Adam Haas Hunter makes a most engaging Algernon, draping himself across furniture and radiating a rather dissipated innocence. By comparison, Christopher Salazar’s Jack, though engaging in the second act country setting, seems a bit underplayed as the supposedly dissolute Earnest (something not helped by the only uninspired costume in the show).
Cecily and Gwendolyn
Jean Gilpin gives the pompous Lady Bracknell a wry sense of humor along with the usual officiousness, which makes her far more fun to watch. Carolyn Ratteray as Gwendolyn, and Marisa Duchowny as Cecily utter the vapid piffle of their parts with such earnest and convicted intent as to heighten the comic aspects of their moments on stage.

Jill Hill makes a fussy and more than usually bemused Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, and Alberto Isaac leers with such innocence at her, as the country parson, that there is great charm in the result. Also worthy of note is Apollo Dukakis, taking on the roles of both Algernon’s and Jack’s household servants with a worldy-wise air in once case and a bemused confusion in the other.

Director Michael Michetti has brought an unusual but logical spin by turning the dilettante Algernon into Wilde himself, complete with flowing locks and moderately outrageous clothes. Operating on a set, by Jeanine A. Ringer, with the feel of a hand-colored pencil drawing, and with costumes by Garry D. Lennon which echo the color scheme and add their own little bit of the florid (with the exception of the instance noted above), there is a unified feeling to this production which does nothing but enhance the comic flow.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, frankly, difficult to kill, but is far more satisfying in the hands of experts. The production at A Noise Within fits that bill almost all the time, leaving one laughing and charmed by a silliness which has remained constant for over 100 years.

What: “The Importance of Being Earnest” When: In repertory through November 22 – 8 p.m. October 4 and November 8, 14 and 21, 7:30 p.m. October 23 and 13, and 2 p.m. October 5 and November 2, 8, and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, with student rush and group ticket prices available Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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