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Polished, Delightful “Flea” Reigns at ANW

: Elyse Mirto, Jill Hill and Jonathan Bray in the classic farce

: Elyse Mirto, Jill Hill and Jonathan Bray in the classic farce “A Flea in Her Ear” at A Noise Within [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The French farce, with its slamming doors, mistaken identities and outrageous slapstick is its own kind of art form. Of all those who have constructed these intricate comedies, none did so with more sophistication than George Feydeau. As wildly funny as any farce, Feydeau’s also contain significant undercurrents of social commentary, and a somewhat surreal quality which enhances the comedy.

Now, in a comparatively new translation by David Ives, one of Feydeau’s best and most well known farces has arrived at A Noise Within in Pasadena. “A Flea in Her Ear” has all the great elements: cases of mistaken identity, whispers of infidelity, elaborate plots which go awry, and impressively physical comedy. Under the direction of co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and now set not in the 19th Century France Feydeau knew, but rather the 1950s, all of this comes together in one massive, brisk, howlingly funny whole.

The plot, such as it is, surrounds the household of the distinguished insurance executive Victor Emmanuel Chandebise. Based on changes in his passion for her, his wife, Raymonde, is convinced he is being unfaithful. To confirm this, she and her best friend Lucienne, a woman married to a Spanish diplomat, decide to set a trap for Victor at a notorious “hotel” used mostly for rendezvous. What the two women do not know is that both Victor’s nephew Camille and his business partner Romain are very familiar with this establishment. In short order, chaos ensues.

In the dual, and exhausting, role of Chandebise and the hotel’s porter, Geoff Elliott creates two completely separate physicalities – a trick which only enhances the comic effect. Elyse Mirto, as Raymonde, creates a woman of comparative honor caught in events which, even if of her own making, shock her with a lack of control. Jill Hill’s Lucienne makes a great foil for her, and Luis Fernandez-Gil offers up the perfectly stereotypical outraged Spanish nobleman as Lucienne’s jealous husband.

Also worthy of note are Joshua Wolf Coleman as the practical family doctor, Jonathan Bray as the amorous Romain, and Jeremy Rabb as the former military man who runs the questionable hotel. Still, of all the performances, none matches both the silliness and the delivery of Rafael Goldstein’s Camille – a man whose undeveloped soft palate has left him unable to use consonants without a prosthesis which becomes its own comic focus.

“A Flea in Her Ear” is not profound, though there are messages within. Rather, it is a particularly find example of the sheer joy of well produced farce. The audience laughter proves constant and hearty. Rodriguez-Elliott knows how to make full use of the ANW stage space, and the results are satisfyingly energetic and nonstop. Fred Kinny’s comically unrealistic set, with its many doors, works perfectly with this equally ridiculous, but delicious silliness.

In short, ANW’s “A Flea in Her Ear” is a true must-see. It plays in repertory with the upcoming productions of Anouilh’s “Antigone” and Miller’s “All My Sons”.

What: “A Flea in Her Ear” When: through November 22; 8 p.m. October 2, 3, and 23, and November 7 and 13; 7 p.m. November 1 and 22, 7:30 p.m. October 22, and November 12; 2 p.m. October 3, November 1, 7 and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush with ID Info: (626) 356-3100 ex. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Old Farce, Delightfully New: “Figaro” at A Noise Within

 Jeremy Guskin (Figaro) and Angela Sauer (Suzanne). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Jeremy Guskin (Figaro) and Angela Sauer (Suzanne). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Ever wondered where the expression “French Farce” got its start? Surely one would be the works of Beaumarchais, celebrating the fictional barber from Seville and French nobleman’s retainer, Figaro. Known to modern audience s more as the subject of comic operas by Mozart and by Rossini, the original plays were classic farce. Now, at A Noise Within, Charles Morey’s admittedly loose adaptation of Beaumarchais’ “Figaro” seems destined to be a solid hit. It’s just that funny.

The tale is familiar, but the rendition proves delightfully surprising anyway. Figaro, the valet to the Count, is about to marry Suzanne, the maid to the Countess and his true love. Suzanne clues him to the fact the Count’s gift of a bed and a room of their own, situated between that of the Count and the Countess, is a matter of convenience but not for Figaro and his bride. The Count is determined to have Figaro’s bride as well – and Figaro is furious.

Suzanne points out that the Countess is still in love, even if her husband is not, and a plot begins to form. Meanwhile the older housekeeper, Marceline, lusts after Figaro, family physician Dr. Bartholo loathes him, and gardener Antonio’s daughter, Fanchette, falls for the silly romantic boy Cherubin. If this sounds like a collection of circular stories, you’re right. But just wait.

In the hands of director Michael Michetti, the enterprise becomes a delightful romp. Though Jeanine A. Ringer’s multi-doored set has some functional issues, there is still the appropriately silly manner of comings and goings, hidden listeners and mistaken agendas. Switched identities lead to laughter, and the net result is suitable and usually happy endings. Still, it is the romp one remembers.

Much of the pacing and an equal percentage of the hilarity comes thanks to Jeremy Guskin’s Figaro. His arch approach to the character, his sly asides to the audience, and his sheer comedic physicality all work together to set the tone and the pace for the rest of the production. Indeed, this wry Figaro proves almost contemporary in his humor, perhaps because adaptor Morey readily admits “freely adapting” the older tale to meet tastes of a modern sensibility, and possibly because Guskin is just that funny.

Angela Sauer’s Suzanne provides a most suitable foil for this Figaro – strong, sardonic, and wise. Andrew Ross Wynn makes the Count a pompous grotesque, which aides the comedy, and Elyse Mirto’s sexually frustrated Countess makes a manipulatable foil for Suzanne. Jeanne Sakata vibrates with frustrated passion as Marceline, while Alan Blumenfeld makes a stuffy and distanced Dr. Bartholo. Will Bradley has a ball as the overly romantic Cherubin, while Natalie De Luna makes a seriously innocent Fanchette. Still, it seems the one performer having the most fun has to be Joshua Wolf Coleman, who becomes the simple Antonio, the pompous music master Bazile, and a toadying, speech-impaired judge, by turns.

The pacing, thanks to Michetti, stays lively, the jokes fresh, and the humor impressively current. Let’s face it – some things are just universally funny, and this production, given this sense of physical comedy combined with a classic, farcical set of situations, fits the bill to perfection. “Figaro” is only one of three shows which will play in repertory through this spring at ANW. It follows the spare “Threepenny Opera,” opened recently, and will be joined at the end of the month by a new version of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Meaning this is the one to come and laugh at, and with. So do it. You’ll feel better by the end.

What: “Figaro” When: 8 p.m. March 14, April 4, 10, and May 1; 7:30 p.m. April 9 and 30; 7 p.m. April 19 and May 10; 2 p.m. March 14, April 4 and 19, and May 10; 4 p.m. April 5 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ext 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Illuminating Silliness: “The Guardsman” woos at A Noise Within

Elyse Mirto and the disguised Freddy Douglas in The Guardsman [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elyse Mirto and the disguised Freddy Douglas in The Guardsman [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The Hungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar had an eye for human frailty. Even at his most comic, as in “The Guardsman,” there is an underlying framework of what seems almost a pity for the foibles of mankind. Still, that doesn’t mean that “The Guardsman” isn’t also very funny, if well played.

Now in repertory at A Noise Within, Molnar’s “Guardsman” aims for the silliness of it all. As many of his day did, Molnar makes ferocious fun of famous actors, in this case by playing them off each other. They are naturally narcissistic. Everything about their lives is artificial. How could they possibly search for genuine emotion, or even recognize it if it appeared?

Freddy Douglas is The Actor, a well-known performer married to an actress delighted by the adoration of her fans. As their initially wild passion has faded into domesticity, he becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him, and so he decides to test her. He woos her, first with letters and finally in costume and make-up, as a military officer – a guardsman – to see if she will succumb to the charms of another.

Douglas plays his character delightfully over the top, and yet with an undercurrent of elemental insecurity. His portrait of the guardsman, as obvious and ridiculous as it is, still vibrates with a kind of desperate hope. Against him, Elyse Mirto has a lovely time as the sweepingly commanding Actress. Bearing always an aura of command, she sweeps through rooms like a force of nature. Are the arguments of these two a chance to make a scene, or are they genuine? Is the actress fooled by her husband’s ruse, or is she playing him as she does the piano?

Director Michael Michetti finds the balance necessary to make this production work – allowing the overly-dramatic sweeps of feeling, while keeping the humanity of his overblown characters consistently on the actor’s minds. With this, the play turns, not into farce, but into a more grounded comedy. If that sometimes make the laughs somewhat smaller, the net result is worth it.

Aiding in the wild world the central characters inhabit are a fine collection of supporting players. Wendy Worthington proves practical and protective as the peasant dresser The Actress has hired to act as her mother on a daily basis. Sasha Pasternak becomes the overwhelmed innocent as their newest maid – overwhelmed by the sheer emotion flowing through the house. Todd Andrew Ball makes very funny work of the creditor always being put off by a couple delightedly living beyond their means, and Judy Durning has a brief but likable turn as the usher controlling access to The Actress’ box at the opera.

Yet, it is Robertson Dean who gets handed the role most to be envied: the one voicing Molnar’s own commentaries, as the practical theater critic who has known the couple on and offstage for many years. As the one character grounded in reality, he proves the only one able to step into and out of the hyper-emotional world the others inhabit, and – as played by Dean – provides an innate steadiness which keeps righting the ship before it founders completely.

In short, “The Guardsman” was never intended to be deep, but by playing it for meaning as well as for farce, it becomes something more than sheer silliness. As such, it offers fun and just a tiny bit of introspection, mystery with just a small gut-level feeling of recognition. It’s not a bad thing to get some thought with your laughter, even in a play this silly.

What: “The Guardsman” When: in repertory through November 30: 8 p.m. November 1, 2, 15, 16, and 30, 2 p.m. November 2, 10, and 30, 7 p.m. November 10, and 7:30 p.m. November 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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