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Of all the history plays of Shakespeare, the one which has always fascinated me most is “Henry V”. From its prologue, which defines the very essence of live theater and the suspension of disbelief, through the humanity of its central figure wrestling with the understood demands of the crown and the lasting echoes of a misspent youth, it has an articulation of language and emotion which have always caught my imagination.
Now a new, pared down version of this great play is opening the spring repertory season at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Gifted with strong and versatile actors and a direction which keeps the play from becoming too static, it seethes with the balance of forces which can make a rational man move into war, and a different, more immature one look upon it as a playful adventure. The great speeches are there, and the essential elements, but the particular editing of the script (though some version is almost always necessary for modern playgoers) leaves a question mark or two.
In this production, and with a couple of exceptions, everyone in the comparatively small company plays at least two and sometimes three parts. Everyone joins in to give parts of the various speeches assigned to Chorus, rather than have someone assigned that part. This proves an interesting effect, although cutting up the speech into chunks may dilute the power of what is said. Even so, that it all works as smoothly as it does is a testament to the versatility of the company, and the singular vision of the directors.
The story is essentially that of Henry’s determination to defeat the army of France and retake lands there which had traditionally belonged to the English crown. It is a tale which, for two reasons, would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. First because Henry was seen and celebrated as a great warrior king. Second because this play followed upon two others about Henry’s youth, and his escapades with some rather questionable cronies, including the wildly popular Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) and an extra play just about Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor),
Indeed, that character’s popularity had obviously begun to weigh upon the playwright, or the actor playing Falstaff, to the point where this play is used to kill him off.
Which is where the production at ANW becomes interesting. In the editing of the play done, one assumes, by directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, the comic characters who had surrounded Falstaff are given fairly short shrift. They show up briefly and some of their more comic moments are cut.
This is perhaps because the focus of this spring repertory is on courage, and too much emphasis on the bawdy or self-serving nature of these comedians would detract from that larger theme. Olivier did much the same – needing to concentrate on Henry the hero – when filming the play during World War II. It works. Still, leaving in an execution scene involving these folk, when you have not explained why that execution would be hard for Henry, makes him seem less conflicted about his role in the life and death decisions his position makes him take. That is unfortunate.
Yet, despite this, the play is very well performed. Rafael Goldstein is Henry, making him intense and direct, but as human as Shakespeare intended – able to rouse men to action and to loyalty while still wrestling with the depth of responsibility which comes with what he is doing, Goldstein excels at this kind of balance, and his work centers the play. As his most obvious foil, Kasey Mahaffy is at his best as the petulant Dauphin, while Erika Soto makes lovely work of the French princess, Katherine, who will be one of Henry’s prizes if he wins. All of this is surrounded by a solidly ensemble cast involving many of the best of the ANW company.
Still, there are a few question marks which must be addressed. The set, by Frederica Nascimento is imposing, but cumbersome. It is often positioned in a way which appears somewhat illogical, and gets in the way of some of the battle scenes. Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created amorphous-period clothing which suits the militarism of the piece, and allows for the carrying about of broadswords, but why has the fight choreographer, Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr., only given shields to the French? It makes for much noise, but a seemingly unequal fight.
Most uncomfortably, the choice to keep a line without its reason. A sequence has been cut in which the French circumvent Henry’s lines, burn his army’s tents and massacre all the young squires waiting behind the battle. That is fine, as it neatens the whole battle concept, but then why leave in Henry’s statement, written specifically to address hearing of the massacre of these boys, as a closing line to that battle sequence? Without context it becomes wryly comic, and seems out of tune with the character or what is going on.
Which is all to say that the performers are very good, and the production proves powerful and interesting. Its visual feel, except when the set gets in the way, has an authority which ties the piece together well. Using a cast of 16 to play 30+ people resonates with what Shakespeare himself was confronted with. And the play works. One could wish some edits were designed differently, and that a Chorus was there as a single voice to call all to use their imaginations, but Henry survives all of this, and does so with style.
Go see “Henry V”. It is not often done, and this one captures the central points of Shakespeare’s concept: that a man once profligate has molded himself into an inspiring leader, but at a cost. That this king knows war is hell, but counts on God and the loyalty of his diverse army to push through against remarkably uneven odds to the attainment of what he truly believes to be the right. And all this with some of the Bard’s most inspired language.
“Henry V” will soon play in repertory with “A Raisin in the Sun” and, later, the comic “Noises Off”.
What: “Henry V” When: 2 p.m. February 17 and 18, March 10, 18 and 24 and April 1; 7 p.m. March 18 and April 7; 7:30 p.m. April 5; 8 p.m. March 9, 10, 23 and 24, and April 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, group and rush tickets available Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
It would be tough, in the English-speaking theatrical canon, to find any playwright more unromantic than George Bernard Shaw. His view of the social arrangements of adult life in late Victorian and early 20th century Britain were quite clear in the arguments his plays made (and continue to make) about the entire subject. For him, the middle class of his era, marriage was a financial arrangement, not a romantic endeavor. For lower classes, there was simply no time for romance in the dual pushes to eke out a living and, if possible, rise out of dangerous and debilitating poverty.
This view shows up particularly in Shaw’s women. From Eliza Doolittle’s determination to achieve a safer self-sufficiency, to – in one of his most “shocking” plays at the time – Kitty Warren, who funds (albeit from a distance) the raising of her very much middle class, educated daughter by successfully operating a string of houses of prostitution on the continent, they show a specific focus on breaking social barriers and avoiding the seemingly inevitable fates of women in their time.
Indeed, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” now in repertory at A Noise Within in Pasadena, balances the “modern” middle class working woman, Vivie Warren, with her lower class, but very, if scandalously successful mother Kitty in ways which pinpoint the plight of both. For Vivie, her focus is becoming a professional. Her alternative is marriage, where she is seen as a prize mostly for the inheritance she will bring with her. For Kitty, the choice was “decent” jobs which were either at poverty wages or involved potentially deadly labor, or deciding to treat sex as the business transaction Shaw was always certain it was.
Can these two women come to an understanding which surmounts the conventional reactions of their day? In this case, being Shavian, the characters’ disconnects may not be the predictable. On the other hand, the men who are sure they know what will, or should happen, pretty much are.
Director Michael Michetti has put a liveliness of spirit into what is admittedly a particularly talky Shaw play by centering it all on character. Still, when it becomes important that you hear the points being made, one cannot help acknowledge Shaw’s tendency toward (as a friend passionate about Shaw once said) beautifully costumed panel discussions. By then, thanks to Michetti, you care enough about the people having the discussions to stop, sit and listen, as well as to absorb a few vital non-verbal moments Michetti uses to bring the play’s major point home.
This is all achievable thanks to a diverse and skilled ensemble cast. Erika Soto makes Vivie convincingly earnest in her desire to be productive in the world, with a specific sense of internal morality which makes her resolute rather than stiff, especially in relation to Kitty. Judith Scott, as Kitty, radiates the inequivocal confidence in her own decisions which underscores the entire character: a lack of apology for succeeding outside the very middle class mores she wishes upon her daughter.
As the young gentleman whose pursuit of Vivie eventually carries more the scent of the mercenary than the romantic, Adam Faison radiates a boyish charm with just the right edge of selfishness. As the profoundly ineffective rector – the young man’s father – whose concern for image diminishes him, Martin Kildare huffs about with appropriate superficiality.
Yet the greatest contrast comes from Jeremy Rabb’s Sir George, Kitty’s business partner, whose values lie solely in a pragmatic capitalism, seeing even the people with which he surrounds himself primarily with an eye to profit. This in balance to Peter James Smith’s Mr. Praed, Kitty’s earnest friend, given a gentle warmth which emphasizes the genuine feeling and concern which balances well against the self-interest of the other men of the piece.
All work in a seamless flow on Sara Ryung Clement’s elemental set, which allows quick movement of setting when needed, and emphasizes the people and the words in important ways.
Shaw is never as easy as one would think. Though “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” caused demonstrations and legal actions upon its premieres, both in Britain and the the US, when one sits and listens to what is actually being spoken – particularly in the final scenes – what the play has to say about class, culture, women’s roles and parental ambition proves as powerful today as it was a century ago: less shocking on a superficial level, but still disturbing in a more elemental way.
For this reason, not to mention the sheer understanding that a Shaw play is a treat for the intellect, ANW’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is worth a look. Go to listen. Go to ponder. This show plays in repertory with “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot”.
What: “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” When: Through November 18: 7:00 p.m. October 22 and November 12, 7:30 p.m. November 2, 8 p.m. October 28 and November 3, 17 and 18, with matinees at 2 p.m. October 22 and 28 and November 12 and 18 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
When I first saw Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the Mark Taper Forum many years ago, I was stunned at its power, and said so in print. I was startled at the mixed reaction I got to that review from people who had seen the show as well, and who usually had the interest in arts that I did. The same thing happened the next time I reviewed a Stoppard play. Thus, let me say from the start that Stoppard’s work is for those who enjoy mental and emotional rigor, and “Arcadia,” now enjoying a finely polished production at A Noise Within, is no exception. If you don’t want to do that kind of work while sitting in an audience, you may find it disappointing.
If you do, you will find this production, and this work, an absolute treasure. As the play explores the meaning of truth, and of genius, it raises questions about everything from morality, to the universe, to the nature and purpose of science and of scholarship. It does so with feet firmly in two very different time periods at once, peopled with characters ranging from fascinating to ridiculous to endearing, and in language which is the kind of spoken poetry great playwrights use.
The story revolves around a single English country estate, seen both in the early 19th Century and present day. There, in a sunny formal room, a historian’s modern research into the evolution of the formal gardens is interrupted by a pop-academician interested in gaining enough information to achieve quick fame. The current residents of the house, descended from those in the past period, include those who echo the skills, temperaments and occasional genius of their antique forebears.
Alternating with these scenes, one is introduced to those forebears, and to the actual events, personalities and talents which the moderns are trying to parse from the few remaining bits of documentary evidence. By the end, in a moment reminiscent of Einstein’s contention that “the distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion”, both time periods are running in the same room at the same time, moving forward as inexorably as a mathematical formula.
Foundational to this tale is the interaction between the 19th Century tutor at this estate, and the brilliant daughter he is there to teach. Rafael Goldstein as Septimus, the tutor and a former school friend of Lord Byron, balances the man’s scholarly intellect and articulate sensuality in ways which provide much of the glue for the rest of the antique tale. As his student, Thomasina, whom we first see at age 13 and later just before her 18th birthday, Erika Soto vibrates with curiosity and an innate wisdom, and her character’s passionate interest in what mathematics can tell one about the universe.
Balanced against these antique figures are Susan Angelo as the controlled and scholarly Hannah, a researcher looking for answers to a series of mysteries about the house and gardens as a follow-up to a recently published book. Her arguments for proof and scholarship even as she has her own suppositions gains legs when Bernard, given a slightly over-the-top egoism by Freddy Douglas, appears to scoop up what he can in a hurry and write a lecture he hopes will gain him a moment of limelight.
In between them is Valentine, played with a kind of internal fire by Tavis Doucette. The eldest son of the owners of the house, he has been culling old household accounts for information to fit into computerized equations for a study foundational to his graduate degree, and the vagaries and gut instincts of historical research are “noise” to his view of facts. Jill Renner is there as his rather vapid sister Chloe, while Richy Storrs does double-duty not only as their non-speaking but musically talented brother, and as Thomasina’s egotistical sibling as well.
Abby Craden, as the rather officious and flirtatious Lady Croom, commands the more antique household, joined sometimes by Stephen Weingartner as her pompous military brother. Eric Curtis Johnson handles the duality of a highly regarded professional landscape architect who is still essentially Lady Croom’s servant, while Mitchell Edmonds performs the duties of the patient butler with style. As one of the most humorous characters in the enterprise, Jeremy Rabb’s nervously ambitious yet ostensibly awful poet gives face to a man totally misunderstood by those researching him roughly 200 years on.
Under the comparatively understated direction of Geoff Elliott the piece has a flow and a subtle choreography which allow the necessarily episodic nature of the thing to feel a sense of unity. Leah Piehl’s accurate costuming for the period portion, and inaccurate pieces for use in the modern dress-up segment, show subtle character notes, and underscore some of the play’s points. Frederica Nascimento’s gorgeously understated Georgian hall allows for light to become its own character, while Robert Oriol’s sound design underscores the explosive nature of the playwright’s words.
In short, this production of “Arcadia” fills the eyes and the mind. Likable, or even humorously unlikable characters carry one through a dizzying array of conversations one may need to take a while to chew over afterward. Yet, that work is worth it. The richness continues to unfold. The play will be performed in rotating repertory with Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid”, all marking the 25th season of ANW.
What: “Arcadia” When: In rotating repertory through November 20, 8 p.m. September 30, October 1, November 5, 8 and 11; 7:30 p.m. October 20 and November 10; 7 p.m. October 30 and November 20; with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 30, and November 5 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44 general, student rush with ID $20 an hour before the performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org