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In order to fully understand the tensions of the play now open at the Pasadena Playhouse, it would be helpful have some background in the last century of the British monarchy. By this I do not mean necessarily that fascination with the soap opera played out in public by the royal family in the last few decades, but the ways in which the monarchy has defined its role – and had that role defined for it – in what is otherwise a strongly democratic parliamentary system. What does it mean that the monarch “reigns but does not rule”?
This proves central to “Charles III”, Mike Bartlett’s examination of the constitutional and emotional conundrum facing the current Prince Charles almost as soon as he takes the throne. He, like all monarchs, must sign every bill passed by the parliament before it becomes law, but this is mostly a ceremonial formality. When one crosses his desk he feels is detrimental to his country’s freedom, what can he do? What should he do? What could any action mean to the delicate balance that is the British system?
What makes all of this particularly delicious is Bartlett’s conscious choice to tell the tale in Shakespearean format. There is a ghost speaking cryptic predictions. There is iambic pentameter. There is a moral dilemma played out in the rich format of formal dialogue. Though, by modern standards, this may make the play seem talky, at the same time it relishes in the echoes of Hamlet and Macbeth – the awesome and terrible load on those who wear the crown.
Jim Abele is Charles, a man who has waited a literal lifetime to attain the only job he has ever been trained for. As such Abele finds the balance of the formality of the job and the character’s deep passion for justice in ways which show both his warmth and his sense of command. Adam Haas Hunter, as William, suddenly a crown prince, emphasizes the stoicism and the festering frustrations of destiny, while Meghan Andrews creates in his wife a sense of command which portends a wrangle over definitions of power. Dylan Saunders’ Harry underscores the frustrating uselessness which is the fate of royal younger sons. Sarah Hollis stands out as the girl who introduces Harry to a reality outside the palace, providing a rounded sense of the real life Harry yearns for.
On the other side of the argument, both powerful and adversarial, is J. Paul Boehmer as the prime minister who finds himself in a tense standoff with a king with his own understanding of his role, the parameters of Britain’s (unwritten) constitution, and the needs of a people he may or may not understand. The resulting questions power the play. Is what the people want always the right thing to do? Is there a safety valve available through the monarchy for unwise governmental action? Are the royal family puppets of political forces who, in truth, find them superfluous?
Director Michael Michetti takes what could be a static and talky script and gives it fascinating legs, in part by bringing it out into the Playhouse audience space. Parliament is on the floor with the patrons, and the almost forbidding palatial spaces of David Meyer’s remarkable set provide the instant formality and distance which define the main conundrums of the piece. This, even by itself, helps move one past the details of British constitutional practice into the humanity of the characters and the fearsome angst of the choices being made.
“King Charles III” is, of course, a fiction. Still, by tying its format and emotional core to Shakespeare’s insightful portraits of former kings both real and imaginary, there is a larger concept at play than just wondering what Charles will be like when and if he ascends the throne. Rather, there is a real, active focus on the monarch’s role to “advise and warn”, and how that works in a world awash in sensational media and quick answers to complex questions. As such, it is a treat for the mind as well as the artistic sense.
What: “King Charles III” When: through December 3, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance 8 p.m. Tuesday, November 28, and no performance on Thanksgiving, or at 7 p.m. Sunday, November 26 Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $96 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org
The best kind of historical plays and films are those which look at some aspect of an era in a complex, yet personal way. This becomes more and more difficult with portions of history which have become iconic, larger than life, epic moments in human or national development. Which is part of what makes “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez, a co-production with South Coast Repertory now opened at the Pasadena Playhouse, so powerful. In the intimate relationship of three men at the end of the Civil War, portraits of slavery, Southern defeat and the lives of the South’s Jewish minority all coalesce.
The tale is set shortly after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Caleb, Confederate officer and son of a wealthy Richmond business owner returns to his ruined home, a damaged man in many ways. There he finds two of his former slaves: Simon, a resourceful man who acted as butler, and John, a young man his own age who was at one time his friend. Surrounding all three is a unifying element. Caleb’s family is Jewish, and his parents raised their slaves to be Jewish as well, a concept – of a people held in slavery until delivered – which offered a profound message to those so included.
What makes this play work is the unifying themes which underlie all the differences of these three men – the faith, the shared history, and the sheer unknown implied by a post-slavery-based world. This, to which one adds a powerful ensemble cast whose common sense of the play itself and their characters’ involvements make everything connect, and define the play’s power.
Adam Haas Hunter makes Caleb profoundly vulnerable, even as the aspects of a life of superiority constantly rumble under the seemingly accepting surface. Charlie Robinson proves a powerful and defining character as Simon, making him a man of innate command, the keeper of traditions. Used to running a household, he exudes a practical and hopeful energy, especially regarding a future he’s sure he can see. Jarrod M. Smith makes the reckless, damaged John a person whose happy-go-lucky opportunism hides deep scars both physical and emotional.
Director Martin Benson has a real feel for this play, where visceral connection or dissension is an essential element. His staging keeps the discussions from becoming static – a particularly difficult concept when dealing with a character forced to sit throughout most of the proceedings. Things flow rapidly, and the continuous redressing of the stage in each scene says a great deal before anyone speaks a word. Tom Buderwitz’s half-burned, collapsing mansion sets the perfect tone of change and potential despair. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes prove essentially historically accurate, and provide changes which also add layers to the narrative in quick, sometimes amusing ways.
In short, “The Whipping Man” offers a unique and rounded approach to a very difficult subject. The surprises of the script, which unfolds in an unforeseen direction, only contribute to the sense of seeing something very new about something very old – the best essence of a historical drama, in that it speaks to what has come after in subtle but essential ways. Surprise, enrichment, polish, and a new window from which to view a well-worn subject all contribute to making this play one to see. So go. No matter where you approach this from, it is worth the time.
Also, be sure to step into the Playhouse’s Friendship Center. Though I don’t always find “additional information about the play” displays helpful or even appropriate, this time the exhibit, which correlates ancient Jewish tradition, the stories of Jewish participation on both sides of the Civil War, and the connections between Jewish scripture and American slavery may prove extremely instructive to some, as it relates to the play’s essential themes.
What: “The Whipping Man” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $30 – $75, with premium seating $125 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
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.
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).
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