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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

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

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