Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: A Noise Within

“The Madwoman of Chaillot” at ANW: Resistance Redux

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Deborah Strang is “The Madwoman of Chaillot” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

 

Jean Giraudoux’s classic play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” is one of those plays everyone should see at some point in life. Though written in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of France, and only performed after the playwright’s death, it is often associated with a celebration of the end of tyranny. The play was actually written in 1943, during that occupation, and the overtones of absurdism it contains allow for it to say much more than just the idea of France triumphant. The production now open at A Noise Within allows for these larger interpretations.

The rather fantastical tale follows the workings of Countess Aurelia, whose eccentricities all center around her sense of community in the section of Paris known as Chaillot. In the inn she frequents, she overhears financiers and prospectors plotting to tear up the Chaillot in a quest for oil, and begins to develop ways to both remove them and others who would, for profit, be so disrespectful to the good of their own community. Helped by an odd assortment of friends, including those busily arguing long-dead causes of one kind and another, she finds help and hope from a younger generation who begin to share in her dreams.

Deborah Strang floats through the play as the Countess, as a spirit lightly out of touch with the now but deeply concerned with what lasts in the world. That sense of wishful fantasy embraced in tones of solid reason allows the play expand to as it does. Rafael Goldstein, as the tormented young man she scoops into her sphere, gently becomes the play’s sense of hope, aided by Leslie Lank’s charmingly unaware waitress.

As the villains of the piece, Apollo Dukakis, Wesley Mann and Armin Shimerman, as the Baron, President, and Prospector respectively, radiate the self-regard and profit-mongering that embodies everything a lover of beauty like the Countess would abhor. Other standouts include Veralyn Jones in the dual roles of a compassionate man of science (a doctor) and one of the Countess’ cohort of imaginative “madwomen”, Jay Lee as the observant deaf mute, and Richy Storrs as the street singer whose attempts to make music in the midst of upheaval prove particularly charming.

Director Stephanie Shroyer keeps the characters engaging and the pace – easily dragged down by long speeches – moving in such a way as to keep the audience engaged. The open set by Angela Balogh Calin provides many spaces in one, which also helps, and the occasional snips of classical music in Jeff Gardner’s sound design become fascinating in their own right – especially the use of pieces written by Soviet composers to underscore the presence of various nefarious persons marching toward their collective doom. Interesting subtext comes with that, since one rarely associates Soviet principles with corporate avarice.

As I said at the start, “The Madwoman of Chaillot” has become one of those plays everyone who aspires to being literate should see at some point, and this is a sound production at which to do so. What proves particularly fascinating, however, is how well the play in all its fantasy speaks to a modern age. The evil to be defeated is corporate greed. The way that greed manifests is in the destruction of an environment for fossil fuel. Interesting how little that particular story has changed in the intervening years.

What: “The Madwoman of Chaillot” When: Through November 11, 7:00 p.m. October 1 and November 5, 7:30 p.m. October 26, 8 p.m. October 20, 21, 27 and November 11, with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 21, and November 5 and 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or anoisewithin.org

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A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities”: character, not melodrama

Frederick Stuart makes a particularly complex Sydney Carton in A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities” [photo: Craig Schwartz]


Any time someone translates a novel to the stage, there is risk involved. The depth of interior monologue, the detail of setting and character, the convolutions of plot and emotion, even the poetry of language used to provide all of this, are all limited by the confines of the stage and the time frame expected of a standard play.

Never is this more true than when dramatizing the works of Charles Dickens. A man who loved theater, his works are in many ways quite theatrical, but they are also often intricate, interior and long. One either carves much of the detailed verbiage away, as has been done several ways for, say, “Oliver Twist,” or one extends the play into two parts, as the Royal Shakespeare Company did for “Nicholas Nickleby”. Michael Poulton’s adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” now open at A Noise Within in Pasadena chooses the former, but in the process creates a focus on the meat of Dickens’ story: that of the dangers of both oligarchy and chaos.

For those who did not read the novel in high school (or after) the play follows the fortunes of Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who renounces his noble family for a life of work in Britain just as the French Revolution sparks. In Britain he must fight accusations of being a spy, and in the process becomes close to three people who will define his life.

One is Dr. Manette, long a prisoner in the Bastille, whom he assists in traveling safely from France to England. Another is Manette’s daughter Lucie, whom Darnay marries. The third is the profligate Sydney Carton, his virtual look-alike, whose friendship with Darnay, and wistful love for Lucie provide lifelines for a man who, though young, sees himself as already worthless and beyond redemption. Then Darnay’s servant begs him to return to revolutionary France at the height of the Reign of Terror to save his life.

As adapted by Poulton, this becomes both a character study, and an examination of the explosion and vengeance resulting from an oligarchy pushing inequality too far. As a result, it avoids the more Victorian villainization of the rebels, turns the story to focus on personal struggles and definitions of justice, and manages to ennoble the wayward Carton without whitewashing his behaviors or his depression. As directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, this episodic and complex tale is given a sense of seamlessness which allows the main themes to rise.

Tavis Doucette makes an earnest and straightforward Darnay. Emily Goss provides a sense of innocence, bravery and devotion as Lucie, while Nicholas Hormann delivers a calm practicality as her father Dr. Manette. Also important is Michael Stone Forrest, who gives the English banker Mr. Lorry a sense of presence and a force of personality which ties together much of the most tense period in the storyline. Trisha Miller, as Lucie’s devoted governess, radiates the strength and indignation of the British servant class. Abby Craden make the villain, Madame Defarge, most convincing, but in a way which underscores this French peasant’s reasons for her searing hatred of Darnay’s family.

Still, the center of the tale in this rendition is Frederick Stuart’s Sydney Carton. Stuart makes Carton’s dissolution more a symptom of depression and oppression by opportunistic employers than simply a sin in and of itself. The other characters’ sympathy for him proves more justifiable, and his willingness to lean toward nobility and sacrifice far more logical. It’s a powerful performance.

Also integral to the production’s success are Jenny Foldenauer’s costumes which, with the exception of a couple of barrister wigs, proves authentic and unexaggerated. Fred Kinney’s modular set pieces, coupled with Kristin Campbell’s projections create drama out of crates and partitions in very effective ways, allowing swift changes of scene in the process. Robert Oriol’s original songs bring the emotional backdrop of the era’s tensions.

“A Tale of Two Cities”, as a story, is a classic in every sense of the word. At ANW it is done justice in many ways. Though some purists may miss a concentration on the inner monologues which make Dickensian characters so interesting and yet so hard to portray, this version when performed this well proves that a tale of upheaval and ethics plays well to a modern audience. Indeed, given the current state of the world, a discussion of oppression, revenge, and ethical choices takes on greater significance.

What: “A Tale of Two Cities” When: through November 19, 7 p.m. October 29, and November 19, 7:30 p.m. October 19 and November 9, 8 p.m. September 29 and 30, November 4 and 10, with 2 p.m. matinees September 30, October 29, November 4 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“Man of La Mancha” at ANW: Valid tinkering with a classic work

Geoff Elliott and Kasey Mahaffy, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


When one first hears that A Noise Within has reset the powerful 1960s musical “Man of La Mancha” in a modern prison in the developing world, it can make one nervous. After all, it is based not only on one of the great works of international literature, but a historical figure who actually did end up imprisoned by the Inquisition for a segment of time. How can one take the piece out of its historical context? Yet, it is one of the hallmarks of a theatrical work that it can stand up to being reset, both in time and location. The new physical trappings of the tale can inform a wider understanding of the impact of the piece, even if the actual language stays the same.

As a consistent modern interpreter of Shakespeare, ANW co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott knows this. Indeed, a work like “Julius Caesar,” about ancient Roman politics, has been reset by various great companies in Mussolini’s Italy, in JFK’s America, or even in a dystopian future without losing its integrity. So, her decision that “La Mancha” can handle the same treatment seems particularly apt.

What may be less wise on Rodriguez-Elliott’s part arises from the demands of this particular work. As musical director Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle states up front, “Despite the folk-inspired nature of the music itself, the voices required [in “Man of La Mancha”] need to be almost operatic in nature.” While many of the performers – a number of them new to ANW – are very much up to this demand, some of ANW’s stock players are not, really. This creates an imbalance which sometimes distracts from not only the original message of the show, but the additional intent of this new staging.

The story is, of course, a story-within-a-story. Don Miguel de Cervantes, the poet, playwright and novelist seen by many as the Spanish equivalent (at least in literary impact) to William Shakespeare, has been thrown into prison by the Inquisition while awaiting trial. There he must defend himself against the other prisoners, who are out to steal what goods he has. He does so by enacting for them the tale he carries in a manuscript – the manuscript for his finest work, “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” Interrupted on occasion by the guards, he pulls his hearers into his story, both literally – to create the needed characters – and figuratively, as they come to appreciate his view of the world.

For those who know more traditional productions of this work, there are a few things missing. For one, there is no dancing and thus no faux horse and mule. Rather, Don Quixote and Sancho ride mops as if they were hobby horses. The props are less things that Cervantes has brought with him, and more found objects from the prison itself. And that transformative moment when Cervantes becomes Quixote is dulled a bit, in that this Cervantes already has so much facial hair there is little need to add much.

Still, the grime of the prison, the seediness of the inn, and the grim lives of those Quixote encounters are still very much in evidence, and the music – particularly at certain moments – proves as wrenching and powerful as ever. But there is inconsistency in this. Geoff Elliott is Cervantes/Quixote, and his speaking voice has the force and grandeur needed, but this character must be able to sing in a commanding and heartfelt way that Elliott really cannot master. His breathing is often labored, his vocal tone goes chesty, and some of the important lyrics – and the lyrics are particularly important throughout this show – become comparatively unintelligible.

On the other hand, Kasey Mahaffy’s Sancho can sing in a bright and tinny way, and it works, in part because it emphasizes the character’s simple, practical approach to the world. Indeed, one of the few cuts one truly regrets is the shortening of Sancho’s last song, which takes away some of its humor – a humor Mahaffy emphasizes to good effect throughout. Cynthia Marty, as both the nervous housekeeper Quixote has left behind and the annoyed wife of the innkeeper, creates two solidly interesting characters, matched by Gabriel Zenone’s fatalistic innkeeper.

Michael Uribes creates two strong characters, as the reputed leader of the prisoners, and as the pseudo-intellectual fiancé of Quixote’s niece, more worried about what he will inherit than about the man he will inherit from. Cassie Simone sings beautifully as the Quixote’s deeply embarrassed niece. ANW regular Jeremy Rabb has a somewhat less successful time as the gentle padre, who must offer tender songs in a rich tenor voice that Rabb has to work to reach.

Cassandra Marie Murphy (l.) proves a stunning Aldonza at A Noise Within


By far the finest performance of this production is Cassandra Marie Murphy’s passionate, bitter Aldonza, creating in her portrayal that combination of despair and curiosity which makes Aldonza so interesting, and singing those deep, powerful, angst-ridden songs with a fire you cannot look away from.

Kudos to ANW for using a live orchestra, and one which uses the original orchestration (no strings except a bass and guitars) which gives the enterprise such a direct, and folk-Spanish feel. Fred Kinney’s scenic design gives a sense of space and enclosure – the dual demands of such a dual tale. Angela Balogh Calen’s costumes are largely supposed to look frayed and dirty (as well as reflecting a non-specific prison garb) and all of this comes off well. Lighting is key in this story, and Ken Booth’s design helps carry the story forward in very specific ways, as do Erin Walley’s “found object” props – essential in this prop-heavy show.

In the end, with the new underscore of continuing spaces of despairing imprisonment and horror in our world, the main sentiments of “Man of La Mancha” come through: hope may seem madness, but can lift up those who choose it. And that is just as apt today as it was for the original creators of the musical, or Cervantes himself. It could have been more even in presentation, but it is definitely there.

“Man of La Mancha” plays in repertory with “King Lear” and “Ah, Wilderness”.

What: “Man of La Mancha” When: through May 21; 7 p.m. April 16 and 30, May 21; 7:30 p.m. April 6; 8 p.m. April 7, May 6, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. matinees April 16, 22 and 30, May 7, 13 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Blind Folly or Alzheimer’s? – A Noise Within’s questionable take on King Lear

Geoff Elliott’s “King Lear” with Erika Soto’s Cordelia in the final scene at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It is an interesting new spin on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to look at the downfall of this unwise king from the lens of Alzheimer’s Disease. That is what director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott does in the production now in repertory at A Noise Within. It turns the focus almost exclusively on Lear, and allows for his admittedly conniving daughters to seem legitimate in their frustrations and outrage with him (at least at first). As someone who has watched a parent dissolve into this dread disease, I can say that the concept makes for interesting conversation.

However, when taken as a whole, to dismiss his behavior as the result of this condition is to negate much of the rest of what Shakespeare has to say about familial love, envy, and lust for power. It could (though actually does not) make a uniquely wrenching star turn for Geoff Elliott in the title role, but at what cost? It is too easy on Lear, for one thing, and twists the focus away from other important themes.

Essentially, Lear is a foolish man. Having ruled his country with intensely loyal people around him, he is used to expecting richly voiced praise. When he insists his daughters say how much they love him, he gets two fulsome answers and one honest, practical one, and turns on this last as a sign of disrespect. Thus, he hands over power to the two women who have his interests least at heart, and their own greed at the fore. He becomes an inconvenience and they whittle away at his dignity and even ability to defend himself until there is nothing left. Madness, thus, becomes a thing of circumstance, playing on a weak mind but not on a disabled one, as one can tell when he comes to himself toward the play’s end.

In the ANW production this last thing is made tricky by the disease itself – one which is emphasized over and over by projections of MRIs of slices of the brain which add color to the intentionally bleak set. When you descend into Alzheimers you forget who you are. No coming back from that.

Still, the larger loss is to the importance of and subtext about the moral decay present in daughters Goneril and Regan, and in the villainous Edmund, who determinedly destroys his legitimate brother Edgar and his father, the Earl of Gloucester. It also makes the dogged, sacrificial devotion to Lear by the banished Earl of Kent make less sense, and it makes the king’s Fool occasionally rather superfluous.

Finally, this interpretation leaves Elliott’s Lear without much room to expand. By making him significantly altered even at the start, he blossoms into what becomes (in this interpretation) an unreasoning fury so early that the rest of his long journey becomes a certain amount of emotional station-keeping. Still, as expected, Elliot uses Shakespearean language as if it was his own, and consistently stays true to the concept of this particular form of human disintegration.

Indeed, the cast itself is splendid. Trisha Miller and Arie Thompson advance the two older sisters from a radiation of privilege and power to a sense of self-focused obsessive, destructive behavior. In this they are matched by Jeremy Rabb as Regan’s noble, but easily vicious husband, while Christopher Franciosa provides an increasingly empowered foil for Goneril as her equally high ranking spouse. Freddy Douglass radiates evil in every tone as the deadly Edmund, and Rafael Goldstein handles desperation well as the maligned Edgar.

Apollo Dukakis gives the Earl of Gloucester some of what one hopes to see in a Lear: a happiness born of power and authority which dissolves thanks to his undeservedly horrifying fate. Perhaps most memorable, in this production, is Kasey Mahaffy’s wry, tuneful and audacious Fool – whom Rodriguez-Elliott has given a most spectacularly apt exit.

Fred Kinney’s bleak but extremely adaptable set design underscores the militaristic nature of the piece, which has been reset as if in the mid-20th century. Angela Balogh Calin does her best work in designing the dresses worn by the royal women, while Robert Oriol’s music sets the sense of doom throughout the piece.

In short, this is a good production of “King Lear,” except that in one important way, it isn’t. All the parts are there, but in service to a somewhat skewed interpretation which denies the larger play much of its power. “King Lear” plays in repertory with “Ah, Wilderness” and the soon-to-open “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “King Lear” When: in repertory through May 6, 7:30 p.m. April 13 and May 4; 8 p.m. April 8, 14, 23 and May 5; 2 p.m. matinees April 8, 23, and May 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Delightful “Ah, Wilderness” Lights up A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Nicholas Hormann lead the cast of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness” at A Noise Within

When one thinks of Eugene O’Neill, one thinks of wrenchingly serious plays, but “Ah, Wilderness” gives him a chance to explore the comparative innocence of a life he wished he could have lived. In the new production at A Noise Within, the play becomes a charming celebration of the nature of adolescence with characters recognizable over time and ethical distance in a way which makes the entire play approachable and embraceable.

In this warmhearted view of a middle class, small town family’s 4th of July in 1906, we follow 17-year-old idealist Richard Miller as he butts heads with his practical father, college-boy elder brother, overly nourishing mother, and the rest of his extended family. He yearns for the daughter of an overly straight-laced man, reads the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, espouses socialism, and generally disrupts the calm of his family circle. In the ANW production, this comparatively lighthearted tale has been laced with popular music of the period – a move which instantly reinforces both the setting and the lighthearted nature of the thing.

Emily Goss and Matt Gall at a peaceful moment in ANW’s “Ah Wilderness”

Nicholas Hormann sets up the feel of the entire piece as Nat Miller, the easygoing patriarch of Richard’s family and publisher of the town newspaper. That very casual but upright “man of the world” quality sets the tone for the family and the entire play. Deborah Strang fusses and nurtures as Richard’s warm, worrying mother. Against these settled people’s maturity flails Matt Gall as the passionate Richard, whose journey into rebellion (and then back into the fold) becomes the focal point of the play. Gall gives Richard both the aura of conviction and the simplicity of lovesick youth in a combination which works well to tie all the pieces of this tale together.

Ian Littleworth, as Richard’s Yale-going elder brother, reflects the pompousness of the newly independent young man, while Katie Hume and Samuel Genghis Christian provide Richard’s younger siblings – the very observant, somewhat sardonic younger sister and the even younger littlest brother. Indeed, there is an aura of youth and innocence throughout this family circle, which balanced by the subtle struggles of the house’s other two occupants.

As Nat’s “old maid” sister, Lily, Kitty Swink finds a combination of determination and pathos, especially in Lily’s relationship with her former love interest, the flawed Sid, whose battle with addiction – though kept lighthearted in Alan Blumenfeld’s rendition – still provides a haunting connection to the darker side of small town life. Among a sizable cast, Emily Goss gives a youthful bravado to Richard’s clandestine love interest, while Emily Kosloski has a lovely time with the “fallen woman” Richard encounters while in defiant despair.

Director Steven Robman has given these folks a timbre and a pacing which keeps the story light on its feet. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento utilizes very mobile set pieces to create the swift changes needed to keep that pacing on target. Most of Garry D. Lennon’s costumes evoke era and class with an easy grace. It all works together to make a delightfully intelligent and largely uplifting whole.

“Ah, Wilderness” is not a rollicking comedy, but rather will evoke the laughter of recognition, and a chance to see a rare side of O’Neill: a balance to his more usual, far more grim works. For those who have never seen it, the ANW production will be a treat. For those who have, this production will confirm why it is worth seeing again. If only coming of age always involved this much charm. “Ah, Wilderness” plays in repertory with ANW productions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the soon-to-open musical “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “Ah, Wilderness” When: through May 20, 7 p.m. March 19, April 9, and May 14; 7:30 p.m. April 20; 8 p.m. April 15 and 21, May 19 and 20; 2 p.m. matinees March 19, April 9 and 15, May 14 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Engaging “A Christmas Carol” Charms at A Noise Within

Alan Blumenfeld (Christmas Present) and Geoff Elliott (Scrooge) in ANW's A Christmas Carol. [Photo Craig Schwartz]

Alan Blumenfeld (Christmas Present) and Geoff Elliott (Scrooge) in ANW’s A Christmas Carol. [Photo Craig Schwartz]


For some theatrical companies, versions of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” have become an annual staple. One such theater is A Noise Within, in Pasadena. When they first moved from Glendale to this, their permanent home, I went to see what they’d done with the time-honored story, and was generally pleased even though there was a most odd and somewhat deflating costuming choice at the end which truly got in the way. Now, four years later, I decided it was probably time to take another look.

When evaluating what spectacle may be added to this tale, one must always remember that Dickens, and many after him up to and including Patrick Stewart, have made theater by simply reading the thing aloud onstage. It is that powerful all on its own. What theatricality one adds must never get in the way of the story itself, and – at least in my book – retain the innate spookiness of the thing which makes Scrooge’s fear real and his conversion more understandable.

A Noise Within’s co-artistic directors, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who also co-direct this production, have honored this concept most of the time. There are still signature dollops of ensemble in anachronistic diaphanous fluff and bowler hats, but they are mostly enhancing the scary or dreamlike bits. Thus, in Elliott’s adaptation, the original author is treated as star of the piece.

Freddy Douglas acts as narrator, in contemporary dress, reading Dickens’ evocative descriptions and setting up each scene. Geoff Elliott gives Scrooge the appropriate crustiness and self-absorption, and makes his gradual softening seem more organic to his own history. Eric Curtis Johnson creates a gentle, bookish Cratchit, which balances well against Elliott’s character.

The ensemble accompanying these central figures gives each of a wide variety of characters individuality and interest, powering the story along.

Among the characters they create, Jill Hill gives Mrs. Cratchit a lovely balance of humanity and authority, creating a sense of unity and family. Indeed. Savannah Gilmore, Jack Elliott, Samuel Genghis Christian and Rigel Blue Pierce-English work well together to create a happy, if impoverished Cratchit household, joined by Eli Stuart’s genuinely charming Tiny Tim. Rafael Goldstein gives Scrooge’s nephew Fred a gentle nature and radiant optimism, Alison Elliott gives a quiet bitterness to Scooge’s fiancé, Belle, and Jeremy Rabb creates an almost ferociously sad aspect as Marley’s ghost.

As for the beneficial visiting ghosts, Deborah Strang’s otherworldly sprite works well as the Ghost of Christmas Past, emphasizing the warmth of Scrooge’s younger self. Stephen Weingartner’s huge and rather odd-looking Ghost of Christmas Present still embodies the essence of Dickens’ cheerful view of the holiday, and the underpinnings of deprivation which need to be addressed.

In a most exciting change from my previous experience of ANW’s version of this classic, the unnamed Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come offers up a far more Dickensian, darkly hooded, spooky, silent figure which, when combined with an impressive headstone, cements Scrooge’s rising terror at what might become of him. Jeanine A. Ringer’s mobile set and prop pieces help the necessarily episodic tale flow as a single piece, as the story itself does.

In short, the A Noise Within production of “A Christmas Carol” offers a genuine treat, and stays generally true to the Dickensian. Stay after the show for a chance of photographs with the major characters.

What: “A Christmas Carol” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday December 21 and 22, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, with student and Sunday rush tickets available for certain performances Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

A Touch of Modernity?: Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within

 Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father's choice of mates in "The Imaginary Invalid" at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father’s choice of mates in “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The thing about classic theatrical works is that sometimes they fall prey to the modern suspicion that anything said in old and/or artful language loses its ability to connect with a contemporary audience. One could argue that this is short-sighted and looks down on the audience’s ability to stretch intellectually. On the other hand, remembering that these plays were originally speaking to people in their own time, perhaps updating the language of a work can add back the freshness it had when new.

As someone who grew up surrounded by people who appreciated Shakespeare, I admit to an abiding suspicion of updating done for its own sake. Thus, I approached the production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within with a certain amount of skepticism. The production of this 343-year-old play uses a 9-year-old adaptation by Constance Congdon based on a translation by Dan Smith, and adaptation – often rather fanciful – it is.

Still, what is lost in the artfulness of some of Moliere’s poetic style (even in translation), is gained back again by focusing on the spirit of the piece as a send-up of both severe hypochondriasis and the bamboozling nature of the medical quack. In this it succeeds with all the silliness and elaborate double entendre that one could ask for.

The tale, as with other of Moliere’s best work, seems remarkably timeless, and very silly. Argan is a wealthy man obsessed with his own ostensibly failing health. To save himself money, he has decided that his daughter will marry the nephew of his doctor – also recently become a doctor – so there will be medical help in the house at all times. Meanwhile, his much younger wife plots to absorb all her husband’s money and avoid paying the dowry required in a marriage by sending his daughter, her step-daughter, to a convent. The daughter, Angelique, having fallen madly for a young man she met at the theater, is appalled at her father’s marriage arrangements for her. The wise servant Toinette observes all of this, and works to wise up Argan, and sort things out in Antoinette’s favor.

Artistic co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has given this piece a nice balance between the cartoonish and the historical, though there are still a few oddities for which ANW productions of antique comedies are known. The play has been developed as a combination of French farce, with the elaborate timing of comings and goings which enhance the comedy, and an old fashioned melodrama complete with sound cues to announce the villain. It works fairly well, filled with silliness and innuendo, and performed as it is by a fine ensemble.

Apollo Dukakis has a lovely time as the jaw-droopingly self-absorbed Argan, delighting in his supposed knowledge of his own mostly fanciful ailments. Deborah Strang shines once again as the practical and often annoyed Toinette, providing a solidity which balances Argan’s flightiness. Kelsey Carthew makes Angelique impressively air headed, even as she decries her status as a pawn in the hands of her elders. Carolyn Ratteray gives Argan’s wife a delightfully comical aversion to her husband, and enough personal villainy to fit the melodramatic plot.

Jeremy Rabb makes Argan’s doctor richly pompous and amazingly agile at spouting multi-syllable words for conditions that don’t exist. Rafael Goldstein provides an appallingly, comically awful potential husband for Antoinette as the doctor’s nephew. As contrast, Josh Odsess-Rubin creates a gentle earnestness in Cleante, the man Antoinette actually loves, making her choice all the more obvious. As two rather slimy characters after their own segment of Argan’s money, Freddy Douglas not only makes each broadly different from the other, but impressively memorable as well.

The scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin make good use of the basic communal pieces shared by other plays in ANW’s fall repertory, while her costume designs range from subtle to florid as the character demands. Rodriguez-Elliot’s wildly elaborate ending, including a costume made from a parachute, seems almost over-much for what is generally a more intimate if silly adventure, but by and large this comedy is worth seeing for many reasons.

In the end, the themes of desire, skulduggery and gullibility, not to mention the sensible observational nature of the servant class, are all Moliere. That we readily accept the idea that a doctor would make up illnesses to keep himself employed by a hypochondriac proves how thoroughly the concept has echoes in modern, pharmaceutically swollen times. “The Imaginary Invalid” plays in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Jean Genet’s “The Maids”.

What: “The Imaginary Invalid” When: Through November 19; 8 p.m. October 29, November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7 p.m. October 23 and November 13; 2 p.m. October 23 and 29, November 13 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” – An Intellectual Treat at ANW

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in "Arcadia" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in “Arcadia” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


When I first saw Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the Mark Taper Forum many years ago, I was stunned at its power, and said so in print. I was startled at the mixed reaction I got to that review from people who had seen the show as well, and who usually had the interest in arts that I did. The same thing happened the next time I reviewed a Stoppard play. Thus, let me say from the start that Stoppard’s work is for those who enjoy mental and emotional rigor, and “Arcadia,” now enjoying a finely polished production at A Noise Within, is no exception. If you don’t want to do that kind of work while sitting in an audience, you may find it disappointing.

If you do, you will find this production, and this work, an absolute treasure. As the play explores the meaning of truth, and of genius, it raises questions about everything from morality, to the universe, to the nature and purpose of science and of scholarship. It does so with feet firmly in two very different time periods at once, peopled with characters ranging from fascinating to ridiculous to endearing, and in language which is the kind of spoken poetry great playwrights use.

The story revolves around a single English country estate, seen both in the early 19th Century and present day. There, in a sunny formal room, a historian’s modern research into the evolution of the formal gardens is interrupted by a pop-academician interested in gaining enough information to achieve quick fame. The current residents of the house, descended from those in the past period, include those who echo the skills, temperaments and occasional genius of their antique forebears.

Alternating with these scenes, one is introduced to those forebears, and to the actual events, personalities and talents which the moderns are trying to parse from the few remaining bits of documentary evidence. By the end, in a moment reminiscent of Einstein’s contention that “the distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion”, both time periods are running in the same room at the same time, moving forward as inexorably as a mathematical formula.

Foundational to this tale is the interaction between the 19th Century tutor at this estate, and the brilliant daughter he is there to teach. Rafael Goldstein as Septimus, the tutor and a former school friend of Lord Byron, balances the man’s scholarly intellect and articulate sensuality in ways which provide much of the glue for the rest of the antique tale. As his student, Thomasina, whom we first see at age 13 and later just before her 18th birthday, Erika Soto vibrates with curiosity and an innate wisdom, and her character’s passionate interest in what mathematics can tell one about the universe.

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Balanced against these antique figures are Susan Angelo as the controlled and scholarly Hannah, a researcher looking for answers to a series of mysteries about the house and gardens as a follow-up to a recently published book. Her arguments for proof and scholarship even as she has her own suppositions gains legs when Bernard, given a slightly over-the-top egoism by Freddy Douglas, appears to scoop up what he can in a hurry and write a lecture he hopes will gain him a moment of limelight.

In between them is Valentine, played with a kind of internal fire by Tavis Doucette. The eldest son of the owners of the house, he has been culling old household accounts for information to fit into computerized equations for a study foundational to his graduate degree, and the vagaries and gut instincts of historical research are “noise” to his view of facts. Jill Renner is there as his rather vapid sister Chloe, while Richy Storrs does double-duty not only as their non-speaking but musically talented brother, and as Thomasina’s egotistical sibling as well.

Abby Craden, as the rather officious and flirtatious Lady Croom, commands the more antique household, joined sometimes by Stephen Weingartner as her pompous military brother. Eric Curtis Johnson handles the duality of a highly regarded professional landscape architect who is still essentially Lady Croom’s servant, while Mitchell Edmonds performs the duties of the patient butler with style. As one of the most humorous characters in the enterprise, Jeremy Rabb’s nervously ambitious yet ostensibly awful poet gives face to a man totally misunderstood by those researching him roughly 200 years on.

Under the comparatively understated direction of Geoff Elliott the piece has a flow and a subtle choreography which allow the necessarily episodic nature of the thing to feel a sense of unity. Leah Piehl’s accurate costuming for the period portion, and inaccurate pieces for use in the modern dress-up segment, show subtle character notes, and underscore some of the play’s points. Frederica Nascimento’s gorgeously understated Georgian hall allows for light to become its own character, while Robert Oriol’s sound design underscores the explosive nature of the playwright’s words.

In short, this production of “Arcadia” fills the eyes and the mind. Likable, or even humorously unlikable characters carry one through a dizzying array of conversations one may need to take a while to chew over afterward. Yet, that work is worth it. The richness continues to unfold. The play will be performed in rotating repertory with Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid”, all marking the 25th season of ANW.

What: “Arcadia” When: In rotating repertory through November 20, 8 p.m. September 30, October 1, November 5, 8 and 11; 7:30 p.m. October 20 and November 10; 7 p.m. October 30 and November 20; with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 30, and November 5 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44 general, student rush with ID $20 an hour before the performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Challenging, Funny and Local: “Six Characters” Invades A Noise Within

The Six Characters: Rafael Goldstein (The Son, in the ridiculed bowler hat), Geoff Elliott (The Father), Rigel Blue Pierce-English (The Young Daughter), Abby Craden (The Mother), Jack Elliott (The Young Son), and Alison Elliott (The Stepdaughter). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The Six Characters: Rafael Goldstein (The Son, in the ridiculed bowler hat), Geoff Elliott (The Father), Rigel Blue Pierce-English (The Young Daughter), Abby Craden (The Mother), Jack Elliott (The Young Son), and Alison Elliott (The Stepdaughter). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

When Luigi Pirandello’s classic “Six Characters in Search of an Author” premiered in Rome in 1921, it became – despite audience protest – a hallmark of the absurdist form. The central question of what is more real, the actors who prepare to play characters, or the characters the playwright has written (particularly if he has then abandoned them to an unfinished storyline) pulls us away from the reality of daily life, just as absurdism should. What might it be like to be only as alive as a writer has made you? To be stuck in the midst of heart wrenching drama with no other options and no resolution?

Now, as the culminating production of A Noise Within’s spring repertory, an adaptation by Robert Brustein brings this play into a self-aware localized focus. The actors preparing for a play are rehearsing in ANW’s space, they reference other local theaters and their differences, and the play they rehearse is perhaps our most ferociously American: “Our Town.” Then in walk Pirandello’s characters – a dysfunctional family abandoned in the 1920s by their author, in mid-dysfunction.

Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott have backed away from their sometimes overly “stagey” style, and created a remarkably clean, often deeply funny and deceptively realistic setting for this odd tale. This is essential in an absurdist play, to capture an audience with a sense of realism even as what is being dealt with is outside the world of common sense. The suspension of disbelief is thus immediate and the tale riveting in the best possible way. Added to this, their top notch (if a bit nepotistic) cast hits all the right notes from start to end.

Robertson Dean shines is the director, used to being in charge, who must deal with these strange beings whose lives are outside of his direction. As his cast, Susan Angelo, June Carryl and Abubakr Ali play “the actors”: themselves but not themselves, frustrated by rehearsal, fascinated by their intruders, and caught up in the web of storyline none of the “real” people can predict.

As for the intrusive characters, Geoff Elliott, as the father of the group, leads the way with a toned down and thus realistic style which plays well against the absurdity of a man who by rights should only exist in print holding conversations with actors whose job would be to play people like him. As his distant and disaffected son, Rafael Goldstein creates an absence of space within himself – a desire not to be present in a story he cannot escape. Likewise Alison Elliott gives the demoralized, bitter daughter an innate sensuality at once disturbing and illuminating.

Abby Craden gives the desperately miserable mother an almost 2-dimensional gray tone – a great sign of an unfinished character. Likewise, though it is explained away briefly, Jack Elliott and Rigel Blue Pierce-English, as the two youngest children, remain silent in innocence and sorrow throughout. Natalie Reiko becomes Dean’s foil, detail-oriented as the frustrated stage manager of the ANW production in rehearsal, while Carina Haller, Marcos J. Ruiz, and Kathryn Ventress create the various peripheral stage hands, etc., who people any rehearsal space.

All these folks work together to create in “Six Characters” highly recognizable truths even as the entire concept has a note of the ridiculous. And the tragedies, when they unfold, as it appears they have over and over again, prove more touching than one might expect. In short, the entire proceeding proves captivating and – perhaps more importantly – understandable. The 90-minute play, which is done without an intermission, feels surprisingly short yet elementally satisfying. This is what comes of a production at the hands of people who really understand the roots of material some see as odd… and at the same time are refreshingly self-aware enough to make fun of themselves.

“Six Characters” plays in repertory with a contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” and the Bernard Shaw classic, “You Never Can Tell.”

What: “Six Characters in Search of an Author” When: Through May 14, 7 p.m. May 1, 7:30 p.m. April 21, 8 p.m. April 16 and 22, May 7, 13 and 14, with 2 p.m. matinees April 16, May 1, 7 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“You Never Can Tell” at ANW: Shaw masterpiece done masterfully

Erica Soto, Deborah Strang and Richy Storrs as 3/4 of the irrepressible Clandons in You Never Can Tell at A Noise Within

Erica Soto, Deborah Strang and Richy Storrs as 3/4 of the irrepressible Clandons in You Never Can Tell at A Noise Within

I confess. I love the plays of George Bernard Shaw. When well done, even the most prosy of them can be a fun, and his best work shines with a kind of internal delight, as his objective of entertaining while saying something societally important proves a success. Such a play, and such a production is the newly opened “You Never Can Tell” at A Noise Within. Gifted with virtually perfect casting, the intelligent and lively direction of Stephanie Shroyer, and solid visuals, it just works. And when Shaw works, you’re in for a treat.

To be frank, the play is one of Shaw’s better discussions of “the modern woman,” circa 1897: tackling their right to independent thought, the assumption of male supremacy in marriage, and the ability of forward thinkers to fit into British society. That some of its essential themes are still relevant today proves why such plays are still staples of English-speaking theater.

Deborah Strang is Mrs. Clandon, a writer famed for books on “The 20th Century Woman” who has returned with her young adult children from Madeira to a local British seaside resort. Strang gives her character that kind of inborn confidence which makes her sure she knows not only what is good for women in general, but for her own children: older daughter Gloria and somewhat younger twins Dolly and Philip. Whether they, especially Gloria, can live up to those expectations, or even want to in the end, is another matter of course.

Kasey Mahaffy and Jill Renner as the reluctant lovers [photos: Craig Schwartz]

Kasey Mahaffy and Jill Renner as the reluctant lovers [photos: Craig Schwartz]

Richy Storrs and Erika Soto are a hoot as the twins, completely unable to hold their tongues on any subject, ferociously curious and absolutely untamable. Jill Renner gives Gloria a wonderful combination of staunchness and indecision, as she gradually falls for a penniless dentist with comparatively old fashioned ideas she reaches to challenge. Jeremy Rabb, as Mrs. Clandon’s old friend and solicitor personifies the staid narrow-mindedness of the matured free thinker, while Apollo Dukakis finds great humor in the sour old man who is both the dentist’s landlord and Mrs. Clandon’s abandoned husband.

Still, the best performances of this splendid company have to be Kasey Mahaffy, complete in tone and body language as the very Shavian dentist – swayed by passions, yet convinced he understands women, and Wesley Mann as the tolerant and intensely observant waiter who cares for the Clandons at their hotel. Also worthy of note in a brief but delightfully “deus ex machina” role is Freddy Douglas as the waiter’s barrister son.

Yet to list the individual performers and their fine work is only the half of it. The sense of ensemble is palpable. The timing is right on point throughout. The cleverness of the direction extends even to a needed shift in Don Llewellyn’s elaborate and very three-dimensional set, which becomes almost a character during the move. Angela Balogh Calin gives the costuming a solid polish, and in general the atmosphere places the play in just the right point in time.

“You Never Can Tell” is intelligent, and very funny. Though Shaw’s focus is on the artificial and damaging understanding of women as a lesser sex, he couches the whole thing as almost a farce – a terrific spoonful of sugar for his more serious message. The result is a production well worth seeing. “You Never Can Tell” plays in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet” and soon with “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”

What: “You Never Can Tell” When: Through May 15, 7 p.m. March 20, April 24 and May 15, 7:30 p.m. April 14 and May 5, 8 p.m. April 9 and 30, with 2 p.m. matinees March 20, April 9, 24 and 30 and May 15 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44, with student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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