Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: existential theater

“Welcome to the White Room” in Hollywood: Satisfying Intellectual Exercise

Chris Gardner, Sarah Lilly and Sierra Marcks star in the West Coast Premiere of “WELCOME TO THE WHITE ROOM”. [photo: Darrett Sanders]


As Trish Harnetiaux’s “Welcome to the White Room” began, in its west coast premiere production at Theatre of NOTE in Hollywood, my first reaction was to think of Jean Paul Sartre’s “No Exit”: three people are placed in a room without any real understanding of what they are to do there. But while Sartre’s puzzle is an existential view of hell as a place where characters who cannot stand each other are condemned to spend eternity together, “Welcome to the White Room” proves more about challenge and manipulation.

Indeed, who are these oddly formal, comparatively superficial beings whose actions often seem out of their own control?

It appears they are scientists of some sort. A lab coated Mr. Paine (Chris Gardner), Jennings (Sarah Lilly) and Ms White (Sierra Marcks) formally introduce themselves, and introduce their various odd and disruptive inventions. Yet, this seems only some segment of a larger challenge – one they are constantly worried about doing within an unknown time frame. One watches their interplay, what appear to be the lingering effects of experiments, the ways they work to figure out their purpose (guided by occasional instructions fed through a slot in the locked door), and the ways in which they analyze what happens to their compatriots. By the time they are joined by a fourth (Reuben Uy), light begins to dawn.

Director Megan A. McGuane keeps this short but intense play active and engaging from start to finish on Amanda Knehans’ small, beautiful, oddly intricately simple set. Gardner, Lilly and Marcks find ways to derive very specific aspects of humanity in their distinctly artificial characters, bringing humor and fascination to the storyline along the way. It’s an actor’s play, as everything which makes it works comes down to creating the atmosphere and structure of oddity and cohesion the script demands.

This very artificiality is underscored by the lack of it in Uy’s fourth member, whose appearance cracks the code of the thing. To say more is to be guilty of the same crime as those who read the end of a mystery before reading the puzzle, but suffice it to say it provides a distinct commentary on isolation and the power of suggestion on the human mind.

“Welcome to the White Room” is challenging and fascinating to watch. The performances are very strong, and the results prove compelling. In an era which often uses elaborate technology to enhance a theatrical experience, this underscores the entertainment value in a production focused on a single set, solid acting, and puzzle which will take a while even after the play to digest. This is theater of the intellect, and thus a particular kind of refreshing.

What: “Welcome to the White Room” When: through September 11, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. (just north of Sunset) in Hollywood How Much: $25 general, $20 students and seniors Info: (323) 856-8611 or http://www.theatreofnote.com

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Challenging, Funny and Local: “Six Characters” Invades A Noise Within

The Six Characters: Rafael Goldstein (The Son, in the ridiculed bowler hat), Geoff Elliott (The Father), Rigel Blue Pierce-English (The Young Daughter), Abby Craden (The Mother), Jack Elliott (The Young Son), and Alison Elliott (The Stepdaughter). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The Six Characters: Rafael Goldstein (The Son, in the ridiculed bowler hat), Geoff Elliott (The Father), Rigel Blue Pierce-English (The Young Daughter), Abby Craden (The Mother), Jack Elliott (The Young Son), and Alison Elliott (The Stepdaughter). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

When Luigi Pirandello’s classic “Six Characters in Search of an Author” premiered in Rome in 1921, it became – despite audience protest – a hallmark of the absurdist form. The central question of what is more real, the actors who prepare to play characters, or the characters the playwright has written (particularly if he has then abandoned them to an unfinished storyline) pulls us away from the reality of daily life, just as absurdism should. What might it be like to be only as alive as a writer has made you? To be stuck in the midst of heart wrenching drama with no other options and no resolution?

Now, as the culminating production of A Noise Within’s spring repertory, an adaptation by Robert Brustein brings this play into a self-aware localized focus. The actors preparing for a play are rehearsing in ANW’s space, they reference other local theaters and their differences, and the play they rehearse is perhaps our most ferociously American: “Our Town.” Then in walk Pirandello’s characters – a dysfunctional family abandoned in the 1920s by their author, in mid-dysfunction.

Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott have backed away from their sometimes overly “stagey” style, and created a remarkably clean, often deeply funny and deceptively realistic setting for this odd tale. This is essential in an absurdist play, to capture an audience with a sense of realism even as what is being dealt with is outside the world of common sense. The suspension of disbelief is thus immediate and the tale riveting in the best possible way. Added to this, their top notch (if a bit nepotistic) cast hits all the right notes from start to end.

Robertson Dean shines is the director, used to being in charge, who must deal with these strange beings whose lives are outside of his direction. As his cast, Susan Angelo, June Carryl and Abubakr Ali play “the actors”: themselves but not themselves, frustrated by rehearsal, fascinated by their intruders, and caught up in the web of storyline none of the “real” people can predict.

As for the intrusive characters, Geoff Elliott, as the father of the group, leads the way with a toned down and thus realistic style which plays well against the absurdity of a man who by rights should only exist in print holding conversations with actors whose job would be to play people like him. As his distant and disaffected son, Rafael Goldstein creates an absence of space within himself – a desire not to be present in a story he cannot escape. Likewise Alison Elliott gives the demoralized, bitter daughter an innate sensuality at once disturbing and illuminating.

Abby Craden gives the desperately miserable mother an almost 2-dimensional gray tone – a great sign of an unfinished character. Likewise, though it is explained away briefly, Jack Elliott and Rigel Blue Pierce-English, as the two youngest children, remain silent in innocence and sorrow throughout. Natalie Reiko becomes Dean’s foil, detail-oriented as the frustrated stage manager of the ANW production in rehearsal, while Carina Haller, Marcos J. Ruiz, and Kathryn Ventress create the various peripheral stage hands, etc., who people any rehearsal space.

All these folks work together to create in “Six Characters” highly recognizable truths even as the entire concept has a note of the ridiculous. And the tragedies, when they unfold, as it appears they have over and over again, prove more touching than one might expect. In short, the entire proceeding proves captivating and – perhaps more importantly – understandable. The 90-minute play, which is done without an intermission, feels surprisingly short yet elementally satisfying. This is what comes of a production at the hands of people who really understand the roots of material some see as odd… and at the same time are refreshingly self-aware enough to make fun of themselves.

“Six Characters” plays in repertory with a contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” and the Bernard Shaw classic, “You Never Can Tell.”

What: “Six Characters in Search of an Author” When: Through May 14, 7 p.m. May 1, 7:30 p.m. April 21, 8 p.m. April 16 and 22, May 7, 13 and 14, with 2 p.m. matinees April 16, May 1, 7 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Beckett’s Woman: “Happy Days” at The Theatre @ Boston Court

This play has been extended through October 19. Marc Cardiff will step in for Tony Shalhoub during the extension.

Happy Days 1

When students study Samuel Beckett, it is almost always by reading or seeing “Waiting for Godot,” undoubtedly the playwright’s definitive masterpiece. As such, people go into a production of “Godot” with a certain knowing – a certain expectation of what may be found there. In other words, when it comes to Beckett, the potential for real surprise – something he was initially known for – comes from his less-produced, or at least less well known work.

At The Theatre at Boston Court, the playwright’s “Happy Days” offers just such satisfying newness. Of course, it isn’t new, and yet though it was first produced in 1961, yes it is. Inspired by Cyril Cusack’s wife, Maureen, who suggested after “Krapp’s Last Tape” that Beckett “write a happy play,” it approaches much which still applies in the disaster which seems to be our modern society.

The play which rises from that request by Maureen Cusack bases itself in utter despair, which the playwright felt only a woman would be able to face with dauntless cheerfulness. Whether or not this is a good thing, or any definition of happy, is open to interpretation.

From the start, we meet Winnie – a woman already sunk to past the waist in the earth of a desolate place. Her husband Willie is in a cave somewhere behind her. He speaks little and usually somewhat unintelligibly. Still, knowing he is there gives this rather overbearing woman the strength to talk herself into buoyance, even as her situation becomes more and more starkly bleak.

Of course, that’s only the superficial view. The toughness and indefatigable coping skills of a woman in the face of apocalypse, the constant stream of repetitive babble even when sleeplessness and hopelessness have given it all a grim undertone, say many complex things. There is much about social standards, marriage, and the elemental nature of womanhood, all to be gleaned as the evening matures.

Winnie is often considered one of the great woman’s roles of the modern theater, and at the Boston Court, Brooke Adams is very much up to the task. In what is essentially a two-act monologue, done while unable to move anything but one’s arms and face, Adams takes us from cheery optimism, determinedly gauging each day as a “very happy day” to all that comes after: the gradual loss of faith and of actual, as opposed to imagined, hope as she sinks further and further into an overwhelming reality. Happy Days 2

Willie, an often thankless part made comical and quizzical by Tony Shalhoub (Adams’ husband), makes an important counterpoint to Winnie. In his grunts and monosyllabic commentary, Willie refuses to live up to expectations, or to answer when spoken to, even appears at times to have disappeared or died. Though the part proves minimal in scripted utterings, it is Willie who creates the question with which the play ends – a question even Beckett determinedly claimed he did not know the answer to.

Director Andrei Belgrader balances the grim, unforgiving quality of set and situation with just enough humor to keep the darkness from descending too soon. He also establishes a pace which makes room for the performers’ art and interpretation without stretching the necessarily repetitive script to a point where the audience disengages. This is a major element in this production’s success.

Takeshi Kata’s diorama-like set falls well into Beckett’s vision for the scene at hand. Melanie Watnick’s costumes evoke the barren, the bleached, the dirty and the worn. The thing looks right, which becomes particularly important in a play where setting is almost a character.

In short, this play – like many others, new and old, produced at Boston Court – asks an audience to absorb, discuss and ponder. “Happy Days” may be listed as a classic, but not one commonly done. It proves most certainly to be a tour de force for Adams, and worth watching if only for that. For all these reasons, go see this “Happy Days”. Then feel free to ask yourself and everyone around you what the answer is to that ending question. You may learn much in the process.

What: “Happy Days” When: Through October 12, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with student and senior discounts Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

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