Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

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“The Madwoman of Chaillot” at ANW: Resistance Redux

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Deborah Strang is “The Madwoman of Chaillot” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

 

Jean Giraudoux’s classic play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” is one of those plays everyone should see at some point in life. Though written in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of France, and only performed after the playwright’s death, it is often associated with a celebration of the end of tyranny. The play was actually written in 1943, during that occupation, and the overtones of absurdism it contains allow for it to say much more than just the idea of France triumphant. The production now open at A Noise Within allows for these larger interpretations.

The rather fantastical tale follows the workings of Countess Aurelia, whose eccentricities all center around her sense of community in the section of Paris known as Chaillot. In the inn she frequents, she overhears financiers and prospectors plotting to tear up the Chaillot in a quest for oil, and begins to develop ways to both remove them and others who would, for profit, be so disrespectful to the good of their own community. Helped by an odd assortment of friends, including those busily arguing long-dead causes of one kind and another, she finds help and hope from a younger generation who begin to share in her dreams.

Deborah Strang floats through the play as the Countess, as a spirit lightly out of touch with the now but deeply concerned with what lasts in the world. That sense of wishful fantasy embraced in tones of solid reason allows the play expand to as it does. Rafael Goldstein, as the tormented young man she scoops into her sphere, gently becomes the play’s sense of hope, aided by Leslie Lank’s charmingly unaware waitress.

As the villains of the piece, Apollo Dukakis, Wesley Mann and Armin Shimerman, as the Baron, President, and Prospector respectively, radiate the self-regard and profit-mongering that embodies everything a lover of beauty like the Countess would abhor. Other standouts include Veralyn Jones in the dual roles of a compassionate man of science (a doctor) and one of the Countess’ cohort of imaginative “madwomen”, Jay Lee as the observant deaf mute, and Richy Storrs as the street singer whose attempts to make music in the midst of upheaval prove particularly charming.

Director Stephanie Shroyer keeps the characters engaging and the pace – easily dragged down by long speeches – moving in such a way as to keep the audience engaged. The open set by Angela Balogh Calin provides many spaces in one, which also helps, and the occasional snips of classical music in Jeff Gardner’s sound design become fascinating in their own right – especially the use of pieces written by Soviet composers to underscore the presence of various nefarious persons marching toward their collective doom. Interesting subtext comes with that, since one rarely associates Soviet principles with corporate avarice.

As I said at the start, “The Madwoman of Chaillot” has become one of those plays everyone who aspires to being literate should see at some point, and this is a sound production at which to do so. What proves particularly fascinating, however, is how well the play in all its fantasy speaks to a modern age. The evil to be defeated is corporate greed. The way that greed manifests is in the destruction of an environment for fossil fuel. Interesting how little that particular story has changed in the intervening years.

What: “The Madwoman of Chaillot” When: Through November 11, 7:00 p.m. October 1 and November 5, 7:30 p.m. October 26, 8 p.m. October 20, 21, 27 and November 11, with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 21, and November 5 and 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or anoisewithin.org

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Delightful “Ah, Wilderness” Lights up A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Nicholas Hormann lead the cast of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness” at A Noise Within

When one thinks of Eugene O’Neill, one thinks of wrenchingly serious plays, but “Ah, Wilderness” gives him a chance to explore the comparative innocence of a life he wished he could have lived. In the new production at A Noise Within, the play becomes a charming celebration of the nature of adolescence with characters recognizable over time and ethical distance in a way which makes the entire play approachable and embraceable.

In this warmhearted view of a middle class, small town family’s 4th of July in 1906, we follow 17-year-old idealist Richard Miller as he butts heads with his practical father, college-boy elder brother, overly nourishing mother, and the rest of his extended family. He yearns for the daughter of an overly straight-laced man, reads the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, espouses socialism, and generally disrupts the calm of his family circle. In the ANW production, this comparatively lighthearted tale has been laced with popular music of the period – a move which instantly reinforces both the setting and the lighthearted nature of the thing.

Emily Goss and Matt Gall at a peaceful moment in ANW’s “Ah Wilderness”

Nicholas Hormann sets up the feel of the entire piece as Nat Miller, the easygoing patriarch of Richard’s family and publisher of the town newspaper. That very casual but upright “man of the world” quality sets the tone for the family and the entire play. Deborah Strang fusses and nurtures as Richard’s warm, worrying mother. Against these settled people’s maturity flails Matt Gall as the passionate Richard, whose journey into rebellion (and then back into the fold) becomes the focal point of the play. Gall gives Richard both the aura of conviction and the simplicity of lovesick youth in a combination which works well to tie all the pieces of this tale together.

Ian Littleworth, as Richard’s Yale-going elder brother, reflects the pompousness of the newly independent young man, while Katie Hume and Samuel Genghis Christian provide Richard’s younger siblings – the very observant, somewhat sardonic younger sister and the even younger littlest brother. Indeed, there is an aura of youth and innocence throughout this family circle, which balanced by the subtle struggles of the house’s other two occupants.

As Nat’s “old maid” sister, Lily, Kitty Swink finds a combination of determination and pathos, especially in Lily’s relationship with her former love interest, the flawed Sid, whose battle with addiction – though kept lighthearted in Alan Blumenfeld’s rendition – still provides a haunting connection to the darker side of small town life. Among a sizable cast, Emily Goss gives a youthful bravado to Richard’s clandestine love interest, while Emily Kosloski has a lovely time with the “fallen woman” Richard encounters while in defiant despair.

Director Steven Robman has given these folks a timbre and a pacing which keeps the story light on its feet. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento utilizes very mobile set pieces to create the swift changes needed to keep that pacing on target. Most of Garry D. Lennon’s costumes evoke era and class with an easy grace. It all works together to make a delightfully intelligent and largely uplifting whole.

“Ah, Wilderness” is not a rollicking comedy, but rather will evoke the laughter of recognition, and a chance to see a rare side of O’Neill: a balance to his more usual, far more grim works. For those who have never seen it, the ANW production will be a treat. For those who have, this production will confirm why it is worth seeing again. If only coming of age always involved this much charm. “Ah, Wilderness” plays in repertory with ANW productions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the soon-to-open musical “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “Ah, Wilderness” When: through May 20, 7 p.m. March 19, April 9, and May 14; 7:30 p.m. April 20; 8 p.m. April 15 and 21, May 19 and 20; 2 p.m. matinees March 19, April 9 and 15, May 14 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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

A Touch of Modernity?: Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within

 Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father's choice of mates in "The Imaginary Invalid" at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Kelsey Carthew (center) as the daughter panicked at her father’s choice of mates in “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The thing about classic theatrical works is that sometimes they fall prey to the modern suspicion that anything said in old and/or artful language loses its ability to connect with a contemporary audience. One could argue that this is short-sighted and looks down on the audience’s ability to stretch intellectually. On the other hand, remembering that these plays were originally speaking to people in their own time, perhaps updating the language of a work can add back the freshness it had when new.

As someone who grew up surrounded by people who appreciated Shakespeare, I admit to an abiding suspicion of updating done for its own sake. Thus, I approached the production of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid” at A Noise Within with a certain amount of skepticism. The production of this 343-year-old play uses a 9-year-old adaptation by Constance Congdon based on a translation by Dan Smith, and adaptation – often rather fanciful – it is.

Still, what is lost in the artfulness of some of Moliere’s poetic style (even in translation), is gained back again by focusing on the spirit of the piece as a send-up of both severe hypochondriasis and the bamboozling nature of the medical quack. In this it succeeds with all the silliness and elaborate double entendre that one could ask for.

The tale, as with other of Moliere’s best work, seems remarkably timeless, and very silly. Argan is a wealthy man obsessed with his own ostensibly failing health. To save himself money, he has decided that his daughter will marry the nephew of his doctor – also recently become a doctor – so there will be medical help in the house at all times. Meanwhile, his much younger wife plots to absorb all her husband’s money and avoid paying the dowry required in a marriage by sending his daughter, her step-daughter, to a convent. The daughter, Angelique, having fallen madly for a young man she met at the theater, is appalled at her father’s marriage arrangements for her. The wise servant Toinette observes all of this, and works to wise up Argan, and sort things out in Antoinette’s favor.

Artistic co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has given this piece a nice balance between the cartoonish and the historical, though there are still a few oddities for which ANW productions of antique comedies are known. The play has been developed as a combination of French farce, with the elaborate timing of comings and goings which enhance the comedy, and an old fashioned melodrama complete with sound cues to announce the villain. It works fairly well, filled with silliness and innuendo, and performed as it is by a fine ensemble.

Apollo Dukakis has a lovely time as the jaw-droopingly self-absorbed Argan, delighting in his supposed knowledge of his own mostly fanciful ailments. Deborah Strang shines once again as the practical and often annoyed Toinette, providing a solidity which balances Argan’s flightiness. Kelsey Carthew makes Angelique impressively air headed, even as she decries her status as a pawn in the hands of her elders. Carolyn Ratteray gives Argan’s wife a delightfully comical aversion to her husband, and enough personal villainy to fit the melodramatic plot.

Jeremy Rabb makes Argan’s doctor richly pompous and amazingly agile at spouting multi-syllable words for conditions that don’t exist. Rafael Goldstein provides an appallingly, comically awful potential husband for Antoinette as the doctor’s nephew. As contrast, Josh Odsess-Rubin creates a gentle earnestness in Cleante, the man Antoinette actually loves, making her choice all the more obvious. As two rather slimy characters after their own segment of Argan’s money, Freddy Douglas not only makes each broadly different from the other, but impressively memorable as well.

The scenic design by Angela Balogh Calin make good use of the basic communal pieces shared by other plays in ANW’s fall repertory, while her costume designs range from subtle to florid as the character demands. Rodriguez-Elliot’s wildly elaborate ending, including a costume made from a parachute, seems almost over-much for what is generally a more intimate if silly adventure, but by and large this comedy is worth seeing for many reasons.

In the end, the themes of desire, skulduggery and gullibility, not to mention the sensible observational nature of the servant class, are all Moliere. That we readily accept the idea that a doctor would make up illnesses to keep himself employed by a hypochondriac proves how thoroughly the concept has echoes in modern, pharmaceutically swollen times. “The Imaginary Invalid” plays in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and Jean Genet’s “The Maids”.

What: “The Imaginary Invalid” When: Through November 19; 8 p.m. October 29, November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7 p.m. October 23 and November 13; 2 p.m. October 23 and 29, November 13 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“You Never Can Tell” at ANW: Shaw masterpiece done masterfully

Erica Soto, Deborah Strang and Richy Storrs as 3/4 of the irrepressible Clandons in You Never Can Tell at A Noise Within

Erica Soto, Deborah Strang and Richy Storrs as 3/4 of the irrepressible Clandons in You Never Can Tell at A Noise Within

I confess. I love the plays of George Bernard Shaw. When well done, even the most prosy of them can be a fun, and his best work shines with a kind of internal delight, as his objective of entertaining while saying something societally important proves a success. Such a play, and such a production is the newly opened “You Never Can Tell” at A Noise Within. Gifted with virtually perfect casting, the intelligent and lively direction of Stephanie Shroyer, and solid visuals, it just works. And when Shaw works, you’re in for a treat.

To be frank, the play is one of Shaw’s better discussions of “the modern woman,” circa 1897: tackling their right to independent thought, the assumption of male supremacy in marriage, and the ability of forward thinkers to fit into British society. That some of its essential themes are still relevant today proves why such plays are still staples of English-speaking theater.

Deborah Strang is Mrs. Clandon, a writer famed for books on “The 20th Century Woman” who has returned with her young adult children from Madeira to a local British seaside resort. Strang gives her character that kind of inborn confidence which makes her sure she knows not only what is good for women in general, but for her own children: older daughter Gloria and somewhat younger twins Dolly and Philip. Whether they, especially Gloria, can live up to those expectations, or even want to in the end, is another matter of course.

Kasey Mahaffy and Jill Renner as the reluctant lovers [photos: Craig Schwartz]

Kasey Mahaffy and Jill Renner as the reluctant lovers [photos: Craig Schwartz]

Richy Storrs and Erika Soto are a hoot as the twins, completely unable to hold their tongues on any subject, ferociously curious and absolutely untamable. Jill Renner gives Gloria a wonderful combination of staunchness and indecision, as she gradually falls for a penniless dentist with comparatively old fashioned ideas she reaches to challenge. Jeremy Rabb, as Mrs. Clandon’s old friend and solicitor personifies the staid narrow-mindedness of the matured free thinker, while Apollo Dukakis finds great humor in the sour old man who is both the dentist’s landlord and Mrs. Clandon’s abandoned husband.

Still, the best performances of this splendid company have to be Kasey Mahaffy, complete in tone and body language as the very Shavian dentist – swayed by passions, yet convinced he understands women, and Wesley Mann as the tolerant and intensely observant waiter who cares for the Clandons at their hotel. Also worthy of note in a brief but delightfully “deus ex machina” role is Freddy Douglas as the waiter’s barrister son.

Yet to list the individual performers and their fine work is only the half of it. The sense of ensemble is palpable. The timing is right on point throughout. The cleverness of the direction extends even to a needed shift in Don Llewellyn’s elaborate and very three-dimensional set, which becomes almost a character during the move. Angela Balogh Calin gives the costuming a solid polish, and in general the atmosphere places the play in just the right point in time.

“You Never Can Tell” is intelligent, and very funny. Though Shaw’s focus is on the artificial and damaging understanding of women as a lesser sex, he couches the whole thing as almost a farce – a terrific spoonful of sugar for his more serious message. The result is a production well worth seeing. “You Never Can Tell” plays in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet” and soon with “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”

What: “You Never Can Tell” When: Through May 15, 7 p.m. March 20, April 24 and May 15, 7:30 p.m. April 14 and May 5, 8 p.m. April 9 and 30, with 2 p.m. matinees March 20, April 9, 24 and 30 and May 15 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44, with student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

“All My Sons” at ANW: Timeless and Powerful

A moment of gentle humor in a suitably tense "All My Sons", Arthur Miller's great morality play, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

A moment of gentle humor in a suitably tense “All My Sons”, Arthur Miller’s great morality play, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

When a play becomes a classic, the underlying message is timelessness. Somehow, the work has created characters which transcend their own age, and delivers a message with an innate universality. Most certainly this is true of the best works of Arthur Miller, often termed America’s premiere playwright. As if one needed proof, the solid rendition of his breakthrough work “All My Sons” at A Noise Within in Pasadena offers up that particular balance of the timely and the timeless, with a moral struggle as true today as it was in the years after World War II.

The story wrestles with profiteering during that war, but it provides a window on modern wrestles between the corporation and the idealist, and between morality and mammon. As many know, it centers on a small, midwestern town and the two families at the center of its greatest controversy. During the war, the company owned by Joe Keller and his partner and neighbor Steve Deever made cylinder heads for aircraft. One day some came out cracked, but this was disguised and the cylinder heads were delivered anyway, leading to the deaths of 21 pilots. Both men went to jail for the coverup, but Keller has since been released on appeal. Deever is still in prison.

Now, in the post-war era, Keller’s younger son Chris, a former army officer who lived through heated battles, helps run the business. He wants to become engaged to Deever’s daughter, Ann, though his mother Kate insists that this is impossible. Ann was Chris’ elder brother’s girl before the war, and though he and his plane went missing, Kate insists he’s going to return. Between Kate’s fervent belief, Chris’ intense belief that the only way his war experience can mean anything is if the world is better for what he and his men went through, and the hovering suspicions of Joe’s complicity in those pilot’s deaths, tension hovers ever near. Then news arrives which brings the tensions between truth and hope, between practical capitalism and idealism into sharp and painful focus.

Director Geoff Elliott has made a few interesting choices in this production. Though the costumes (Leah Piehl) and setting place this very firmly in the 1947 in which it was first performed, the casting – far more diverse than a midwestern neighborhood of that era would have seen – seeks for universality. Also, the director has cast himself as Joe Keller, the focal point of much of the play’s drama. This is a bit disappointing, as an independent eye would have challenged him – as has been true in some other fairly recent ANW productions – to do his most creative interior work. Here he sometimes reverts to what one can recognize as a more formulaic approach for his own part.

The same is not true for the rest of the cast, however, all of whom prove strong and compelling. Rafael Goldstein steps into Chris’ passion and belief system as if it was made for him. The events which begin to rock Chris’ understandings seem to hit on a visceral level, making the character rounded and deeply believable. Maegan McConnell gives Ann the balance of trust and nerve and direction, and the chemistry between her and Goldstein center the conundrums of this young couple’s desire to move forward. Most profoundly, Deborah Strang’s aching, obsessive Kate has a naturalness about her maternalism which anchors the entire proceeding.

Also worthy of considerable note are Aaron Blakely, briefly but intensely present as Ann’s furious brother almost wooed back into the neighborhood fold, E.K. Dagenfield and Natalie Reiko as a young couple unusually untouched by the chaos of war which surrounded most of their contemporaries, and Vega Pierce-English as the neighbor boy urged to virtuousness by the the comparatively questionable Joe. Perhaps most captivating is the underscore to the entire debate over money’s role in both happiness and morality exemplified by Jeremy Rabb’s country doctor dreaming of a life in research and June Carryl as his wife, insistent he live out his promise of financial security instead.

There is a reason students still study “All My Sons,” as its ethical dilemma seems as fresh today as ever. Joe’s insistence that money and leaving something for his son to inherit trumps anything else, contrasted to his son’s insistence on seeing the world beyond the factory door – that age-old battle between the market and humanity – could be reset in any time frame from the Civil War to this year’s presidential campaign. The art of Miller is to bring it down to the extremely personal, to people you believe you know. That, and the solidly interesting performances from most of the cast, make this definitely worth watching.

“All My Sons” is part of ANW’s three-play fall repertory season, alternating with “A Flea in Her Ear” and “Antigone”.

What: “All My Sons” When: Through November 21, 7 p.m. October 25 and November 15, 7:30 p.m. November 5, 8 p.m. October 30, November 6 and 21, 2 p.m. matinee October 25 and 30, November 15 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

A Noise Within’s Threepenny Opera: Brecht but with a twist

Andrew Ableson, as Macheath, celebrates his wedding in A Noise Within's "The Threepenny Opera" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Ableson, as Macheath, celebrates his wedding in A Noise Within’s “The Threepenny Opera” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

by Frances Baum Nicholson

One of the signature elements of the entire arts movement in 1920s Berlin is “The Threepenny Opera,” a reworking of John Gay’s 18th century “The Beggar’s Opera” by German greats Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Stark, unrealistic by design, and seated in an essential socialist view of a harshly capitalist society, its jazzy, sometimes atonal songs and scruffy collection of anti-heroes poke a finger at all the conventions of society, theater and popular storytelling.

Now at A Noise Within in Pasadena, “The Threepenny Opera” melds the essential concepts of Brechtian theatrical production with the theatrical traditions of ANW’s artistic, and production, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliott with significant success. There are still some issues to be resolved, particularly as they relate to sound, and it is possible that Brecht purists will be frustrated by ANW’s tradition of cartoonish/clownish additions, and a significant amount of editing, but as a piece of theater it stands up.

The tale is of Macheath, or Mack the Knife, who has married Polly, the daughter of the scruffy Peachums, who operate a business making money out of organizing the beggars of the city. Furious over the marriage, they try to turn Macheath in to the police, thwarted by the fact the Chief of Police is Macheath’s old army comrade Tiger Brown. Eventually Macheath is arrested, then set free by another of his women, then rearrested when he can’t stay away from his favorite brothel, and finally saved by a completely ridiculous deus-ex-machina underscoring the ridiculousness of happy endings (a Brecht hallmark).

Andrew Ableson is that very balance of soullessness and grimy good looks as Macheath. Marisa Duchowny sings particularly well, and has perhaps the funniest (if also the most scatological) moment as the deflowered Polly. Geoff Elliott and most particularly Deborah Strang make the Peachums impressively unlikable, and yet humorously dark. Jeremy Rabb gives Tiger that manipulatable quality so necessary to be a crime lord’s dupe, while Maegan McConnell, as Tiger’s daughter, and Stasha Surdyke, as Jenny Diver, the prostitute who was once Mack’s central lover, offer up memorable portraits of those carried away by, or done with Mack’s inability to control his desires.

Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created costumes based on an essential, sometimes clownish miscellany, yet thrashed and dirty about the edges, with only Macheath briefly accorded a truly dapper look. Frederica Nascimento’s set – made heavily from bits of scaffolding and ladders – holds fairly true to the Brechtian ideal of minimalism and labels.

Indeed, the only problem (and it is essential) with this production as a piece of theater has to do with sound. The jazz band which accompanies the show is good, but in a space made mostly of concrete it is also loud. On several occasions it threatens to drown out the actors, whose mics are not all set at a strong enough level to overcome the music. Articulation is also a problem. For example, one can hear every word Strang sings, but many of the lyrics sung by the small chorus of ruffians, or by individual characters including Macheath himself, get lost as much due to diction as to being overwhelmed by music. This is a problem because the lyrics advance the storyline and enhance the characters. To not hear, and understand, them is to be lost in the plot.

Fortunately this is very solvable. That’s good because the rest of this is certainly impressive. One rarely gets to see a fully staged production of “The Threepenny Opera,” yet it has much to say about greed and inequity which is just as relevant as ever. For those to whom this matters, it is also impressively raw and fairly scatological, and is most definitely not a musical to bring younger children to.

“The Threepenny Opera” is the first of three productions which will play in repertory at ANW this spring. The next, “Figaro”, opens on March 7, followed at the end of the month by “Julius Caesar.”

What: “The Threepenny Opera” When: in repertory through May 17, 8 p.m. March 12, April 3, 11, 24 and 25, and May 9 and 16; 7 p.m. March 15 and May 3, 7:30 p.m. April 2 and 23, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 15, April 12 and 18, May 2, 9 and 17 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush. Group prices available. Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

A Noise Within’s “The Tempest” – When a formula fits the product

Deborah Strang is Shakespeare's magical Prospero [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang is Shakespeare’s magical Prospero [photo: Craig Schwartz]

If you have encountered the works of Shakespeare enough times at A Noise Within, you begin to see certain patterns emerge. Any of them which have ANW artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliot as co-directors of the production will have reoccurring central elements from show to show, as well as certain guaranteed casting choices which you can almost bet on.

These elemental moves include concepts borrowed from Asian and Classical Greek theater traditions, and there will also usually be an odd whimsy, often involving the injection of a carnival-like moment, at some point in the show. Sometimes this all feels like a non sequitur to the plot, but in their new production of “The Tempest” their signature moves gel, and help sell the play itself.

From the very start, the hovering “ensemble,” anonymous in Greek-like masks and acting similarly to the pseudo-invisible stage hands of Chinese opera, makes a huge impact. As the magical Ariel (Kimberleigh Aarn) tosses a ship about, the fabric sea is made menacing by this chorus. Indeed, the very magical nature of the tale of Prospero, an overthrown noble with magical powers who wreaks his revenge through the use of spells and spirits, benefits from the eerie otherworldly quality of this production.

In a bit of a twist, though not a precedent-setting one, ANW stalwart Deborah Strang is Prospero. It’s an interesting choice, in that it redefines the parent-child relationship Prospero has with Miranda, the innocent daughter who will become the love interest of a young man tossed by Prospero’s magic onto the island’s shores. Still, though solid, it is not Strang’s finest performance, mostly because one expects more from someone that strong. The dependence upon magic and the gradual rejection of it, not to mention the internal war between revenge and forgiveness, would seem to give her a greater palate to work with than that which is is used.

Eliza Kiss (who also sings the best of the original music), Kimberleigh Aarn and Dekyi Ronge as Ariel and her ensemble spirits [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Eliza Kiss (who also sings the best of the original music), Kimberleigh Aarn and Dekyi Ronge as Ariel and her ensemble spirits [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Aarn’s enslaved spirit, on the other hand, seethes with that odd combination of duty and desire for freedom. She enjoys her magic, yet chafes at the control over her life. The Elliots have chosen to have Geoff Elliot play the monster Calaban more as a grotesque human than as a truly monster-ish monster. It certainly makes his situation more pitiful, and the comedy which surrounds him more approachable. Alison Elliot’s Miranda proves as sweet and openly joy-filled as one could want, while Paul David Story’s earnest Fernando has the right kind of boyish charm to make the romance between them a sweet balance to the oddity of their environment.

Indeed, the rest of the company shipwrecked upon this strange place also offer up fine performances, especially William Dennis Hunt’s touchingly antique Gonzalo. One sometimes wishes they had more to do, as they spout long explanatory passages about the strangeness of their environment. Still, the silliness of Kasey Mahaffy’s Trinculo and Jeremy Rabb’s Stephano, as they get Calaban drunk, makes up for much of the rest.

Kudos to Peter Bayne for the fascinating original music – some of which sets Shakespeare’s lyrics – and the general sound design. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes set this fantasy piece solidly in the “English gentleman” period of the late 1800s. The whole thing has an air of calypso about it, but a subtle one which suits the vagueness of Shakespeare’s location just fine.

In short, though I cannot say this is the finest rendition of “The Tempest” I have ever seen, I appreciate the way it establishes a sense of mystery, and the way in which things which have become Elliot signatures continue that “presence” as the ancient tale unfolds. And then, of course, I always like a chance to root for Ariel, waiting for her freedom as these silly mortals sort out their dramas.

What: “The Tempest” When: Through November 22 as part of their repertory season, 8 p.m. Oct 3, Nov. 1 and 22, 7 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 and 20, and 2 p.m. Oct. 4 and 26, and Nov. 16 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: Single tickets from $40, $20 for student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Subtle and Stunning: “Come Back, Little Sheba” renewed at A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott as Lola and Doc in the fine A Noise Within production of Come Back, Little Sheba [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott as Lola and Doc in the fine A Noise Within production of Come Back, Little Sheba [photo: Craig Schwartz]

For some, William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” is from another time – close enough to be discomforting but not close enough to be relevant. I might have believed so too, except for a wise and understated performance of the work just opened at A Noise Within. There, the time frame has the same impact as the set: it simply provides a place where troubled, very human characters can exist. Those characters themselves, in the hands of a strong and insightful cast, prove timeless in their very humanity. All at once, this play is not a dinosaur, but a window on the human soul. And, quite unlike the more familiar renditions, there is a quiet knot of hope in there somewhere.

The tale is, for some, a familiar one. Doc and Lola live in a small house somewhere in the midwest. He is a chiropractor, having had to give up a promising medical education when Lola became pregnant. They then lost the baby. Now Lola, heavy and stupefyingly lonely, grasps at anyone who walks in the door as a source of conversation. Doc, after a long bout of drunkenness, has been in AA for almost a year and is deeply proud of his own self control. Yet this is powered by an inability to look back – in conflict with Lola’s longing for her popular and coquettish youth.

Lili Fuller and Miles Gaston Villanueva as the new, potentially disturbing generation [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lili Fuller and Miles Gaston Villanueva as the new, potentially disturbing generation [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Into this world has come a boarder: a young college student named Marie. She brings a sweetness, but a generational shift: holding a useful, handsome but somewhat vapid boyfriend intimately close even as she is engaged to a rising young businessman back in her home town. For Lola, she is a lovely reminder of her own days of popularity. For Doc, she is a reminder of his youth, and the purity he lost. What will happen if he finds out she isn’t the sweet, pure thing he believes her to be?

The internal struggles of Lola and Doc power the piece. Though not much happens to change them in the script itself, it is up to the actors to find the subtle adjustments which come from wrestling with boredom and demons and a shifting world. This task is left to Deborah Strang, whose portraits are always an intellectual and emotional treat, and Geoff Elliott in perhaps the most underplayed and cerebral turn of his in recent memory. Between them they keep the play fascinating.

Along with these two, Lili Fuller makes a sweet-faced, but calculating Marie, Miles Gaston Villanueva’s jock of a boyfriend manages to be rather narcissistic and detached from seriousness without devolving into stereotype, and in a brief appearance Paul Culos gives the out-of-town fiancĂ© the aura of success and single-mindedness without the snobby elitism which sometimes colors the character. Mitchell Edmonds makes Doc’s AA sponsor a warm, determined and practical guy, while John Klopping has a lovely time as the earnest young milkman flattered by Lola’s interest in his self-improvement. Jill Hill makes lovely work of the neighbor woman, whose shift in tone and attitude seem natural and heartfelt.

Pulled together by director Elliott and co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, this “Come Back, Little Sheba” has a gentle rhythm, a terrific use of space, and – and I say it once again – an underplayed subtlety which makes the whole thing hum along. Dramatic moments mean something when everything else is not played at forte, and the opportunity to watch the internal wrestlings in, particularly, Strang’s face ends up telling so much more than if everything was rather overblown.

One must make a nod to Stephen Gifford’s representative set design, and to Leah Piehl’s solidly period costumes. They ground the play, as do the equally period props and furniture amassed by Kristina Teves.

As for the play itself, yes, the material is dated. How many middle-to-low income couples, even in the midwest, can afford to have the wife stay at home? How many pregnant girls these days face shotgun marriages? Our post-birth control pill age is far more apt to accept a variety of ethical models of behavior, and to consider the narrower views of sex in that generation to be fusty and unworkable. Still, those things are window-dressing in a work about struggle, identity and loneliness. That is the core of this classic play, at least in this production.

As a result, a treasure has been discovered where there might easily have been something less interesting. That is worth celebrating.

What: “Come Back, Little Sheba” When: Through May 17 in repertory with “MacBeth” and “Tartuffe,” 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.April 13 and May 4; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., April 26 and May 10; 8 p.m., April 25, May 16 and 17; 7:30 p.m. May 15 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

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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