Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Amir Abdullah

Intimate, Engaging “A Raisin in the Sun” at A Noise Within

Saundra McClain as Lena Younger [Photo:Craig Schwartz]

By any measure, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is an essential part of the canon of American plays, but its messages prove especially needed in our current climate. In 1959, it became the first straight play by an African-American to appear on Broadway. It chronicles a decisive period in the life of the Younger family in post-World War II Chicago, and the dreams which grew out of or were squelched by that time, that place and that family.

Now a new and sparkling production at A Noise Within contains a specific intimacy which allows the many messages of the play to rise in rich moments of character and place. A strong piece with a strong and talented cast, it carries inside it the innate nobility of people who have risen up from darkness and can see – can just see – the light up ahead.

Saundra McClain leads the cast as Lena, the Younger matriarch. There is a passionate decisiveness in McClain’s Lena which gathers her clan – even those feeling caged by it – into a close-knit unit for which she is the foundation. Ben Cain makes the impulsive, ambitious and sometimes foolish Walter Lee an interesting balance of hope and anger, and shows in subtle carriage shifts the moments when a more cohesive manhood becomes a part of him.

Toya Turner makes Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, move with that particular kind of tired which comes from swimming up stream all the time, as she wrestles between despair and the potential for promise. Perhaps most entertaining to watch is the energy of Sarah Hollis, whose Beneatha – the younger sibling working toward becoming a doctor – becomes a symbol of the coming generation, with its desire to reconnect with cultural roots and its push against the very things which have both sustained those working to rise and possibly kept them from rising.

As one of the two men Beneatha dates, Keith Walker radiates the privilege which creates class differences even among those fighting for recognition from the larger community. Amir Abdullah, by sheer carriage, exhibits in the African student the command of a person unburdened by the legacy of American slavery. Bert Emmett makes the white man with awkward news more of a product of his time than a villain, and as the youngest Younger, Sam Christian exhibits a genuine innocence which becomes the reason for so many others’ strivings.

Director Gregg T. Daniel has choreographed this production as much as directed it, creating intertwining patterns of love and frustration, of hopeful striding and heart-wrenched staggers, all in service of a genuineness which radiates a special kind of truth. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set uses the the thrust A Noise Within stage to make the small apartment both restrictive and connected to the audience in important ways.

In short, the production at ANW is not to be missed. If you have seen this play many times you will not be disappointed in this version. If you have never seen it, take the chance to introduce yourself. It is, indeed, part of the canon and particularly apt in this fraught period in our history.

“A Raisin in the Sun” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Henry V”.

What: “A Raisin in the Sun” When: through April 8, 2 p.m. March 11, 17, 25, 31, April 7 and 8; 7 p.m. March 11, 25 and April 8; 7:30 p.m. March 17, 15 and 29; 8 p.m. March 16, 17, 30, and April 7 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, student rush $20, “pay what you can” March 14, 7:30 performance Info: (626) 356-3121 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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A Polished Twist: Shakespeare’s Star-crossed Lovers at ANW

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes are ANW's Romeo and Juliet

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes are ANW’s Romeo and Juliet

One of the pleasures (or, if you are a purist, one of the annoyances) of modern Shakespearean productions is the license directors feel to move the setting, time period and circumstances of the characters to a more recognizable – or more symbolic – space. Sometimes such a shift becomes legendary (one thinks of the Orson Welles’ “Julius Caesar” of the 1930s, set in Mussolini’s Italy). Sometimes it can enhance a sense of connection with the material. Sometimes it isn’t quite as successful.

Take as example the intense “Romeo and Juliet” at A Noise Within. There, director D’amaso Rodriguez has amassed an impressive cast, and brought the story out of the halls of wealthy Verona into the sleazy back streets of a Mob-dominated world. To some extent, this works well, right down to Romeo’s initial resemblance to Banksy, but between an overly busy set and the break-neck speed of line delivery, some of the poetics get lost in the translation.

No denying the show’s intensity. That’s a good thing. And the words are there: with rare exceptions, Rodriguez avoids the slashed script which so often is used to woo modern audiences to the antique language. The use of doubling or even tripling among the lesser characters also works well, creating a focus on the protagonists while keeping the crowd onstage at a reasonable size. Indeed, Shakespeare did the same.

But, particularly in the early stages of the play, those words are spoken at such speed that if you don’t already have the show nearly memorized (which I admit I do) you miss much of that lovely language because you just can’t process the words fast enough, even with the actors’ universally lovely diction. And the set, though in practical terms it works well, has been graced with so much completely random graffiti art (that is, nothing actually related to the script) that it becomes a noise distracting from the proceedings. Yet, all these issues do not mean the show isn’t worth watching or the interpretation given isn’t immediate and valid.

Will Bradley plays a somewhat stringy, intense Romeo with an impulsive, occasionally dark passion that works well in this setting. Donnla Hughes manages to carry off both the gangly awkwardness of Juliet’s barely-teen self while still finding the depths of that acid test of all Juliets, the potion scene. Indeed, her wrestling seems more organic to Juliet than is often true.

Robertson Dean, inexplicably barefoot throughout, makes a humble, annoyed, and finally desperate Friar Laurence. Rafael Goldstein, as Mercutio and Christian Barillas as Tybalt find the sweet spot in their dueling scene between enmity and boredom. This makes their deaths particularly tragic. Indeed, Goldstein’s performance romances the wit of his character, making him more central and more sympathetic than is often true.

In the dual role of the Prince and Juliet’s nurse, June Carryl creates two separately defined persons of distinctive character – severe and controlled as the Prince, fulsome and heartfelt as the nurse. Charlotte Gulezian makes a fine friend and occasional confidante as Romeo’s buddy Benvolio, Amir Abdullah gives Paris more presence and more pathos than usual, and Alan Blumenfeld as the Don-like Capulet exudes beneficent but potentially ferocious command. Jill Hill handles Lady Capulet with a style which makes her stand out more than sometimes, though the interpretation’s comparative crassness takes a bit of getting used to.

Designer Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes fit the setting impressively, and add to the unified vision of the production. Her back alley set design also works well, as Romeo ascends dumpster lids to Juliet’s window and Capulets and Montagues fight amidst the strewn trash. Only the overdone graffiti sometimes distracts.

So, in total, this “Romeo and Juliet” is largely a success. The acting is strong, the empathy clear and the tragedy palpable. Rodriguez has a sense of the humanity of the characters in anything he directs, which keeps the potential for stagey-ness at bay. For something like Shakespeare to appeal to a new age, this is absolutely key.

Young people in the audience – and there were many when I saw it – “get” this version more thoroughly than they would a doublet-and-hose production. Keeping the Bard vital to each age, and real, is elementally important, no matter how many people want to put his work in an antique box. In this, A Noise Within’s “Romeo and Juliet” proves one of their most successful recent Shakespearean ventures.

What: “Romeo and Juliet” When: In repertory through May 8, 7 p.m. April 17 and May 8, 7:30 p.m. April 7 and 28, 8 p.m. March 18 and 19, April 8, 23 and 29, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 19, April 17 and 23, and May 8. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 general, $20 student rush one hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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