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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

“Foxfinder” at Furious: riveting tale of lies and truths

Sara Hennessy, Joshua Weinstein and Shawn Lee star in the FURIOUS THEATRE COMPANY'S rolling World Premiere production of FOXFINDER. [photo:  Owen Carey]

Sara Hennessy, Joshua Weinstein and Shawn Lee star in the FURIOUS THEATRE COMPANY’S rolling World Premiere production of FOXFINDER.
[photo: Owen Carey]

In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s first play emphasized the concept – inspired by the rise of Nazism – that a lie repeated long enough, with enough conviction, can eventually be seen as true. Just like “The Children’s Hour” 80 years ago, Dawn King’s new venture “Foxfinder” looks at this elemental concept of indoctrination, propaganda and fear.

In a “rolling U.S. premiere” directed by former Furious Theatre Company artistic director Damaso Rodriguez, “Foxfinder” has landed at Furious, back at their home in the Carrie Hamilton Theater. Compelling and intense, it has much to recommend it to those caught up in popular ethos: insidious propaganda, a dystopian future, nature v mankind. Still, the overarching statement being made resonates back to Hellman’s warning: say something untrue long enough, and it becomes a people’s truth.

In “Foxfinder,” the concern is productive use of limited farmland, and a government strictly monitoring the efficiency with which each parcel is utilized. Any slacking off, even caused by weather, is liable to lead to an investigation by a “foxfinder,” raised up to look for evidence of the evil and subliminal control of foxes upon the society. With fox infiltration seen as the source of all inefficiency and rebellion, foxfinder investigations are feared, with reason.

Shawn Lee and Sara Hennessy are Samuel and Judith, a simple-living farm couple struggling with loss and bad weather, and the oppressive fact that a foxfinder has come. Joshua Weinstein creates the rigidly indoctrinated foxfinder William, struggling with his own humanity even as he carefully documents the human failings of his subjects. Amanda Soden, as their neighbor Sarah, supplies the reasoning and therefore rebellious counter argument, putting her family at risk by articulating the pointlessness of the foxfinder’s purpose.

Lee creates in Samuel a man desperate for something to give his life purpose, confused and self-isolated. Hennessy’s careful, protective Judith provides what balance there can be in a household of constant stress. Soden’s inquiringly dangerous Sarah, on stage in sudden spurts, speaks to the passions which inspire underground rebellions – sympathetic, hopeful, and human.

Yet, though the entire story proves compelling watching, Weinstein’s indoctrinated automaton discovering his humanity creates the greatest fascination. Initially a man of fascist passion, William’s fights to cling to his proud asceticism while overwhelmed with very human desires makes the entire piece work as a whole.

“Foxfinder” is not new news. Fascistic authoritarianism, though in this instance sparked apparently by climate change, has been worked and reworked over time, and perhaps better. The message at the core of the play, be it suspicion of blind belief, the unnatural condition of denying one’s essential nature, or the compelling power of a well and sincerely told lie, has also been seen before.

Still, what sets this production of this play apart is the quality of the performance, as the actors create characters of rounded familiarity. Add to this the taut direction by Rodriguez, which keeps one on the edge of one’s seat, and the artistry of those whose work literally sets the stage for what appears.

The minimalist but very effective set by Kristeen Willis Crosser allows effective changes of scene, aided by her facile lighting design. Doug Newell’s ominous original music, and general sound design help build the feeling of dread so necessary to the piece. Gregory Pulver’s contrasting clothing between peasant-like country folk and tightly formal official defines character before a word is spoken.

“Foxfinder” runs roughly 90 minutes without intermission which is a necessity. Frankly, breaking the sense of disquiet and rising emotion would dilute the most important elements. Furious Theater’s last two productions have removed the standard proscenium-based interior of the Carrie Hamilton, turning it into a modified “black box” with moveable seating. This too allows the action to be closer, and the feeling more intense.

What: “Foxfinder” When: Through February 2, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., in Pasadena How Much: $20 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.furioustheatre.org

Morality’s the Thing: Well-played ethical wrangling in Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at A Noise Within

L to R: Jason Dechert, as an artist threatened by illness, consults doctors played by Apollo Dukakis, Geoff Elliott, Robertson Dean, & Freddy Douglas in “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at A Noise Within (photo: Craig Schwartz)


Unless you are particularly fascinated by the man’s work, most people never get around to the more obscure plays of George Bernard Shaw. After “Pygmalion,” “Major Barbara,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and perhaps “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the other plays he wrote – and there were more than 50 – are rarely seen, at least in one piece. Indeed, I have heard many of his later works codified as “costumed panel discussions.” It is hard to make such ideological commentaries theatrical. But it isn’t impossible.

Which brings me to A Noise Within’s new production of “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” The play, to which Shaw wrote (as he sometimes did) a philosophical introduction longer than the play itself, manages to bring together his general distrust for the medical profession, his fascination with the limitations of the morality of his day, and his personal, unique logic. It is left to director Damaso Rodriguez to make the thing come to life – to have us care in a more than intellectual way about characters who exist primarily to challenge the intellect. That this is managed, more often than not, is due to Rodriguez’s own vision and a precise and polished ensemble cast.

Sir Colenso Rodgeon has, it appears, come up with a treatment for tuberculosis. Still in the experimental stages, the list of his patients must be limited by his funding and the size of his staff. That list is full when the beautiful wife of an artist arrives to beg her husband be included in his study because of his larger value to society. Then, just as this is to move forward, information about an indigent but completely selfless fellow physician’s equally profound illness, and about the questionable morality of the artist, bring him up short. How should this possible life or death decision be made?

Geoff Elliott plays Rodgeon as a gentle man nonetheless supremely confident in his own abilities and, despite his protestations, made comfortable by his ability to play god. His somewhat childish underpinnings are only revealed in his choice of housekeepers – a nurturing, wise old woman played with delightful individuality by Deborah Strang.

Among the other medical men who gather around him, Apollo Dukakis stumbles a bit, but harrumphs nicely as a retired old-time medical man. Robertson Dean and Freddy Douglas make distinctly individual characters out of the two doctors obsessed with their differing, single diagnoses for all ailments. David LM McIntyre’s brief appearance as their destitute yet honorable, ill colleague manages to be adamantly noble and mildly pitiful at once.

Yet, when it comes to creating characters worth remembering, it is Jason Dechert’s charmingly amoral artist whose confident calm and disarmingly illogical logic power the play’s best moments. Combined with Jules Willcox as the archetypical Shavian heroine – confident in her power of persuasion and far more observant than given credit for – they pin this whole piece together. Rafael Goldstein and Kelly Ehlert round out the cast in minor but important roles.

Nods also to Susah Gratch, whose ability to create a semblance of Victorian solidity from airy bits of set both grounds and lightens the piece. Leah Piehl’s costumes hint at the transitional nature of the time (the play was written in 1911), though some of Willcox’s finery seems to float a bit much between periods.

Still, it must be said that the root of the play, and the main argument one will walk away with, is an intricate examination of ethics. Ethics in the hands of Shaw involves a lot of talk. The play runs, with intermission, about 2 3/4 hours – typical for Shaw, but a bit much for some modern theatergoers.

So, go with your thinking cap on, and the patience to hear the man out. You know he’s saying something he sees as important when one of his characters (in this case, the artist) quotes Shaw himself, by name, and when one of the silliest characters strings together random phrases from Shakespeare (the playwright Shaw saw as his chief rival). What he has to say will leave most modern folk squirming a bit, which is just what he was after.

What: “The Doctor’s Dilemma” When: in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” on selected dates through November 25, 8 p.m Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

Everything Old is New Again: “The Heiress” at Pasadena Playhouse

Heather Tom makes “The Heiress” her own at the Pasadena Playhouse (photo: Jim Cox)

When dealing with a play which some consider a classic, the struggle is always between the production best known – the bellwether for many people, the one they consider “right” – and innovation. This has definitely been true of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s “The Heiress.” Defined for many by Olivia de Havilland’s Oscar-winning film version, it was redefined in the 1990s in Cherry Jones’ Tony-winning portrayal. Though that new view of an established character gave great pause to some purists, it acknowledged the play as a living thing. This is what theater is supposed to do.

The story itself can be tragic or transformative, based on how the title character is played. A shy young woman, the daughter of a doctor, finds that a handsome young man is interested in her despite her father’s low opinion of her charms. Her father sees the young man as a predator, while his widowed sister embraces the romance which appears to be on the horizon. As the conflict between daughter’s hopes and father’s suspicion plays out, truths of their relationship are bared, while the romantic aunt wrings her hands.

In the new production at the Pasadena Playhouse, Heather Tom has chosen to find middle ground between de Havilland’s gentleness and Jones’ underlying rebellion. Her Catherine, plain and hesitant, confronts her own natural practicality along with her wishes for romance. It works. Richard Chamberlain, as Catherine’s father, vibrates with the festering, self-centered bitterness of a man whose own romantic notions smashed against tragedy too soon. Once the gentility is thinned on each of these characters, the chemical reactions are intense and interesting.

Julia Duffy provides balance as the kindly, well-intentioned aunt, while Steve Coombs makes Morris, the dubious young man, handsome and deceptively at ease in a house of wealth. Elizabeth Tobias turns the maid who observes so much of the upheaval into a far more three-dimensional character that one often sees. Indeed, all the rest of the ensemble provides a rounded and interesting backdrop to this taut story.

Director Damaso Rodriguez balances the personalities of his characters well, keeping the story from ever devolving into the maudlin, and allowing some of the more subtle points of the story and characterizations to have just the gentlest underscore. It means everything to audience engagement, as the layers of emotion settle upon them.

And the thing looks just right. John Iacovelli’s upper crust house, with its mixed aura of self-control and wealth, fits the mood of the piece beautifully. The expertly period costumes of Leah Piehl, worn and used as fits the times, transport one back to pre-civil war New York where this particular character dynamic could so easily appear.

“The Heiress” offers one of the greater female parts in American theatrical literature. To see it reinvented over and over, in subtle gradations of character, is to watch the art of the actor and director at its finest. The artistic image of Catherine cannot remain static any more than one of Hamlet can. Each new generation must take something away from the piece. Rodriguez and Tom know that, and it shows.

What: “The Heiress” When: Through May 20, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org

Fatal Attractions: Desire Under the Elms at A Noise Within

Monette Magrath and Jason Dechert in A Noise Within's "Desire Under the Elms"


A Noise Within, in its new performance space in Pasadena, has returned to its traditional status as a repertory theater. This weekend it began offering a second show to run concurrently with the “Twelfth Night” which opened the season. The contrast is instant and obvious. Though “Twelfth Night” was overly concept-driven, putting florid flourishes on a play to the point of dulling its original luster, this new exploration of Eugene O’Neill’s minor masterpiece “Desire Under the Elms” lets the characters become the play’s force. Interlaced in director D’amaso Rodriguez’s vision of setting and pace, the show becomes a cohesive whole, and a compelling one.

A portrait of struggle on many levels the play introduces Ephraim Cabot, the hard, aging taskmaster father who has driven two wives to their graves, and three sons into deep and powerful resentment. In his fullness of days he has taken another wife – a young widow desperate to own something and belong somewhere. Two sons desert him for California and a third, who dreams of owning the farm, remains behind. Thus begins a struggle of hearts, as Ephraim’s harshness bumps up against his new wife Abby’s grasping and his son Eben’s aching passions. Ephraim’s self-focus and determined loneliness doom them all.

In some ways the setting is almost a character. The cast’s upper New England accents, and the starkly beautiful world they see from John Iacovelli’s stark and transparent farmhouse define the world in which this wrenching drama unfolds.

William Dennis Hunt’s Ephraim looks like he stepped out of a daguerreotype, and though he plays it all in a pacing and huffing key, the part works as the rock upon which the rest of the story layers. Jason Dechert’s soft and aching Eben contrasts viscerally with Hunt’s toughness. Monette Magrath does well walking the tightrope between making Abby too calculating and not calculating enough, leading to some interesting, if debatable, interpretations of her shift in interest from father to son.

Still, between pacing and sense of ensemble rhythm, this “Desire Under the Elms” proves compelling watching. Even those in smaller parts, particularly Stephen Rockwell and Christopher Fairbanks as Eben’s two cloddish elder brothers heading for the California gold fields, fit in with the rhythm and atmosphere with a deceptive effortlessness.

On a more mundane key, and also in contrast to ANW’s “Twelfth Night,” this language-rich production proves satisfying in that you can hear every word. And here words matter, set in a culture which measured every sentence for economy as they did feed for the stock.

This “Desire Under the Elms” is a good chance to meet one of the finer plays by one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. Before him, we were a provincial theatrical place at best. He brought American theater seriousness, and an undercurrent of Greek tragedy, which Miller and Williams and others would build upon in their turns. As with the Greeks, the flaws of human interaction are inevitable and deadly. Yet, in O’Neill, we find our own roots intertwined with those fatal flaws. It’s an uncomfortable mirror, but an engrossing one.

What: “Desire Under the Elms” When: Through December 18, on selected nights in repertory with “Twelfth Night,” 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 W. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

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