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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
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.
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