Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

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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

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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

Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” – An Intellectual Treat at ANW

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in "Arcadia" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Rafael Goldstein (Septimus Hodge) and Erika Soto (Thomasina Coverly) in “Arcadia” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


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.

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Susan Angelo and Freddy Douglas [photo: Craig Schwartz]

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

“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

Fine Performances Highlight ANW’s “Julius Caesar”

 Freddy Douglas (Cassius) and Robertson Dean (Brutus) join the other conspirators in "Julius Caesar" [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Freddy Douglas (Cassius) and Robertson Dean (Brutus) join the other conspirators in “Julius Caesar” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The third segment in A Noise Within’s spring repertory, a new rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” offers up a production extremely strong on performance, innovatively timeless in setting, and powerful in final feel. If, in the process, it has a bit of a rough – or internally derivative – start, the net result outweighs the awkward beginning.

Directors love to toy with “Julius Caesar.” Its setting has proved surprisingly malleable, and has been reset everywhere from Mussolini’s Italy to JFK’s Washington. Some directors wallow in its bloodiness. Some revel in the political discourse. Some underscore the internal wrestles of people like Brutus or Mark Antony, or even Cassius. Most do some combination of the above.

At ANW, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott have chosen to at least begin the piece in an otherworldly, Brechtian way (not surprising in a repertory season also featuring a Brecht-Weill musical), but seem to abandon this somewhat as the tale unfolds. So cast members come up – as they do in the Elliotts’ other spring production, all speaking their important lines at once, don costumes hanging on stage, and then – in true Brecht fashion – hold up cardboard signs proclaiming what part they are playing. Then, things get serious, and except for continuing to use painters’ scaffolding as the set’s skeleton, we move into a separate arena.

And what an arena! What makes this production work is a series of individually impressive performances which mesh in exciting ways. Robertson Dean gives Brutus both the simple faith and anguished legacy which ground his political fortunes, making him far more three-dimensional than he is often played. Rafael Goldstein turns Mark Antony into a ferociously righteous wolf, initially mistaken as boyish in this intense power struggle. Patrick O’Connell gives Caesar himself an innate nobility which makes one question the ambitions read into him more than one usually does.

Still, the most fascinating role proves to be Freddy Douglas’ Cassius. Here he becomes a true, devout and unalterable revolutionary: the kind of man who fights not just on principle, but because he aims to preserve a belief (in this case, in the preservation of the Roman Republic) which is the definition of his entire world.

All these fine men are surrounded with a solid supporting cast. In something as intricate as the political discussions of “Julius Caesar,” it is essential that all involved not only speak Shakespearean language as if it was native to them, but truly understand – with depth – what they are talking about. They become the translators for the general public, and here that is exactly what happens. Each person fits into their part or, in this case, parts (as the rest of the company each fill several roles), not only defining them as separate individuals but giving each a distinct understanding of the surrounding upheaval.

So, in the end this is what one remembers from this “Caeser”, as the thing becomes a play of passions, and an examination of how differing passions can lead people to clash even as both can be seen (at least in hindsight) to have been right. One must mention Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes, which work hard to make almost all characters look essentially the same, in drapery deeply reminiscent of clerical cassocks. One gets the point, but the audience must strain sometimes to keep the people straight. Good thing she gives them differing colored scarves by the end, so at least we can tell which side those with multiple parts are on at that moment.

So, go check out A Noise Within’s “Julius Caesar.” It plays in repertory with Charles Morey’s very funny adaptation of the Beaumarchais farce, “Figaro,” and the aforementioned Brecht-Weill “The Threepenny Opera.” Each has a distinct feel, and each will – on a certain level – leave a bit of disquiet in their wakes.

What: “Julius Caesar” When: Through May 8; 2 p.m. matinees April 11, 25 and 26, and May 3; 7 p.m. April 12 and 26; 7:30 p.m. April 16 and May 7; 8 p.m. April 17 and 18, and May 2 and 8 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, student rush $20 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

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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