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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 fiancĂ©, 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

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

Moliere at A Noise Within: It may be Baroque, but don’t ” fix” it

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas as Orgon and the felonious Tartuffe, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Geoff Elliott and Freddy Douglas as Orgon and the felonious Tartuffe, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a particular challenge to producing a classic comedy for a modern audience. By “classic” I do not mean vintage Neil Simon, but the comedies of Shakespeare, Sheridan, Moliere and others of considerable vintage. The first challenge is to acknowledge that they are, and can continue to be, funny. The second is to find a way to bring that humor to an audience using the play itself, rather than assuming the observers will not “get” or will be bored by the original script.

This is the challenge in A Noise Within’s production of Moliere’s spot-on send-up of fraudent piety, “Tartuffe.” A solid translation by Richard Wilbur supplies the base. For the most part, Julia Rodriguez-Eliott’s direction gives the respect, and a proficient company makes the antique language and situation glow with recognizable flair.

Almost. The production trips up at the very end, simply because the director either does not trust the intelligence of her audience, or believe in the subtle humor a modern company can create from a historic, tongue-in-cheek, obsequious speech. The shift is so sudden and so glaring it leaves one resentful, rather than glowing with the humor of what is otherwise a splendid production.

Central to the success of this show is Tartuffe himself. Freddy Douglass makes the flim-flam artist masquerading as an ascetic religious zealot so grating, with such an underscore of sly malace it is easy for the audience to join in the instant dislike most of the onstage characters feel. This balances will against Geoff Elliott’s blindly devoted Orgon. It’s standard Elliott, but here that works well (though one wonders why the not-so-subtle, anachronistic addition of bat-wing glasses is needed to indicate his blindness).

The rest of the cast proves equally strong. Among the standouts, Alison Elliott makes fine work of Orgon’s daughter, fighting for her own love life as her father angles her toward the religious con man. Rafael Goldstein makes her original intended just enough of a milquetoast to push the girl to fight her own battle, along with Mark Jacobson as her appalled and frustrated brother. Deborah Strang contributes yet another strong performance as the practical maid who sees the whole thing for the ridiculous situation that it is.

Indeed, it all rolls along with Moliere’s wry and somewhat dark humor at the fore, until we reach the end. Understanding that the play was banned twice, this version contains a flowing speech at the end praising the greatness of the King of France (Louis XV) – probably a necessity to finally get the thing on the stage. It’s reminiscent of a similar speech at the end of one Gilbert and Sullivan opera, to counter Queen Victoria’s lack of amusement at a previous satire.

Instead of letting the rather overblown (and thus satiric) statements roll as their own comedy, the whole thing suddenly becomes a burlesque skit – out of context and out of character. It’s jarring, and doesn’t let the silliness of the “deus ex machina” ending ride under its own power – a great disappointment.

Still, the majority of the production is splendid. Special nods ot Steven Barr of Trifecta Scenery and to Miriam Dafford and David King, scenic painters responsible – one assumes – for a most intimidating portrait of the title character which appears at a major moment. Angela Balogh Calin’s costume designs cement the sense of period (regardless of the nonsensical glasses).

Indeed, it all works, until it suddenly and spectacularly doesn’t.

“Tartuffe” has a lot to say about how people can – then and now – be bamboozled into a restrictive and destructive sense of religion. It always surprises me how current Moliere’s central statement is. Most of what you would see at A Noise Within would underscore this. All that needs to be added is for the director to trust the audience enough to understand they will “get” comedy without needing to be distracted from the words, or having them disguised.

What: “Tartuffe” When: In repertory through May 24, 8 p.m. March 8, April 13 and 14, May 2 and 24; 7 p.m. March 23, April 20, and May 18; 7:30 p.m. April 10; 2 p.m. March 2 and 23, May 18 and 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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