Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Geoff Elliott

“Man of La Mancha” at ANW: Valid tinkering with a classic work

Geoff Elliott and Kasey Mahaffy, as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in “Man of La Mancha” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


When one first hears that A Noise Within has reset the powerful 1960s musical “Man of La Mancha” in a modern prison in the developing world, it can make one nervous. After all, it is based not only on one of the great works of international literature, but a historical figure who actually did end up imprisoned by the Inquisition for a segment of time. How can one take the piece out of its historical context? Yet, it is one of the hallmarks of a theatrical work that it can stand up to being reset, both in time and location. The new physical trappings of the tale can inform a wider understanding of the impact of the piece, even if the actual language stays the same.

As a consistent modern interpreter of Shakespeare, ANW co-Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott knows this. Indeed, a work like “Julius Caesar,” about ancient Roman politics, has been reset by various great companies in Mussolini’s Italy, in JFK’s America, or even in a dystopian future without losing its integrity. So, her decision that “La Mancha” can handle the same treatment seems particularly apt.

What may be less wise on Rodriguez-Elliott’s part arises from the demands of this particular work. As musical director Dr. Melissa Sky-Eagle states up front, “Despite the folk-inspired nature of the music itself, the voices required [in “Man of La Mancha”] need to be almost operatic in nature.” While many of the performers – a number of them new to ANW – are very much up to this demand, some of ANW’s stock players are not, really. This creates an imbalance which sometimes distracts from not only the original message of the show, but the additional intent of this new staging.

The story is, of course, a story-within-a-story. Don Miguel de Cervantes, the poet, playwright and novelist seen by many as the Spanish equivalent (at least in literary impact) to William Shakespeare, has been thrown into prison by the Inquisition while awaiting trial. There he must defend himself against the other prisoners, who are out to steal what goods he has. He does so by enacting for them the tale he carries in a manuscript – the manuscript for his finest work, “Don Quixote de La Mancha.” Interrupted on occasion by the guards, he pulls his hearers into his story, both literally – to create the needed characters – and figuratively, as they come to appreciate his view of the world.

For those who know more traditional productions of this work, there are a few things missing. For one, there is no dancing and thus no faux horse and mule. Rather, Don Quixote and Sancho ride mops as if they were hobby horses. The props are less things that Cervantes has brought with him, and more found objects from the prison itself. And that transformative moment when Cervantes becomes Quixote is dulled a bit, in that this Cervantes already has so much facial hair there is little need to add much.

Still, the grime of the prison, the seediness of the inn, and the grim lives of those Quixote encounters are still very much in evidence, and the music – particularly at certain moments – proves as wrenching and powerful as ever. But there is inconsistency in this. Geoff Elliott is Cervantes/Quixote, and his speaking voice has the force and grandeur needed, but this character must be able to sing in a commanding and heartfelt way that Elliott really cannot master. His breathing is often labored, his vocal tone goes chesty, and some of the important lyrics – and the lyrics are particularly important throughout this show – become comparatively unintelligible.

On the other hand, Kasey Mahaffy’s Sancho can sing in a bright and tinny way, and it works, in part because it emphasizes the character’s simple, practical approach to the world. Indeed, one of the few cuts one truly regrets is the shortening of Sancho’s last song, which takes away some of its humor – a humor Mahaffy emphasizes to good effect throughout. Cynthia Marty, as both the nervous housekeeper Quixote has left behind and the annoyed wife of the innkeeper, creates two solidly interesting characters, matched by Gabriel Zenone’s fatalistic innkeeper.

Michael Uribes creates two strong characters, as the reputed leader of the prisoners, and as the pseudo-intellectual fiancé of Quixote’s niece, more worried about what he will inherit than about the man he will inherit from. Cassie Simone sings beautifully as the Quixote’s deeply embarrassed niece. ANW regular Jeremy Rabb has a somewhat less successful time as the gentle padre, who must offer tender songs in a rich tenor voice that Rabb has to work to reach.

Cassandra Marie Murphy (l.) proves a stunning Aldonza at A Noise Within


By far the finest performance of this production is Cassandra Marie Murphy’s passionate, bitter Aldonza, creating in her portrayal that combination of despair and curiosity which makes Aldonza so interesting, and singing those deep, powerful, angst-ridden songs with a fire you cannot look away from.

Kudos to ANW for using a live orchestra, and one which uses the original orchestration (no strings except a bass and guitars) which gives the enterprise such a direct, and folk-Spanish feel. Fred Kinney’s scenic design gives a sense of space and enclosure – the dual demands of such a dual tale. Angela Balogh Calen’s costumes are largely supposed to look frayed and dirty (as well as reflecting a non-specific prison garb) and all of this comes off well. Lighting is key in this story, and Ken Booth’s design helps carry the story forward in very specific ways, as do Erin Walley’s “found object” props – essential in this prop-heavy show.

In the end, with the new underscore of continuing spaces of despairing imprisonment and horror in our world, the main sentiments of “Man of La Mancha” come through: hope may seem madness, but can lift up those who choose it. And that is just as apt today as it was for the original creators of the musical, or Cervantes himself. It could have been more even in presentation, but it is definitely there.

“Man of La Mancha” plays in repertory with “King Lear” and “Ah, Wilderness”.

What: “Man of La Mancha” When: through May 21; 7 p.m. April 16 and 30, May 21; 7:30 p.m. April 6; 8 p.m. April 7, May 6, 12 and 13; 2 p.m. matinees April 16, 22 and 30, May 7, 13 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Blind Folly or Alzheimer’s? – A Noise Within’s questionable take on King Lear

Geoff Elliott’s “King Lear” with Erika Soto’s Cordelia in the final scene at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It is an interesting new spin on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to look at the downfall of this unwise king from the lens of Alzheimer’s Disease. That is what director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott does in the production now in repertory at A Noise Within. It turns the focus almost exclusively on Lear, and allows for his admittedly conniving daughters to seem legitimate in their frustrations and outrage with him (at least at first). As someone who has watched a parent dissolve into this dread disease, I can say that the concept makes for interesting conversation.

However, when taken as a whole, to dismiss his behavior as the result of this condition is to negate much of the rest of what Shakespeare has to say about familial love, envy, and lust for power. It could (though actually does not) make a uniquely wrenching star turn for Geoff Elliott in the title role, but at what cost? It is too easy on Lear, for one thing, and twists the focus away from other important themes.

Essentially, Lear is a foolish man. Having ruled his country with intensely loyal people around him, he is used to expecting richly voiced praise. When he insists his daughters say how much they love him, he gets two fulsome answers and one honest, practical one, and turns on this last as a sign of disrespect. Thus, he hands over power to the two women who have his interests least at heart, and their own greed at the fore. He becomes an inconvenience and they whittle away at his dignity and even ability to defend himself until there is nothing left. Madness, thus, becomes a thing of circumstance, playing on a weak mind but not on a disabled one, as one can tell when he comes to himself toward the play’s end.

In the ANW production this last thing is made tricky by the disease itself – one which is emphasized over and over by projections of MRIs of slices of the brain which add color to the intentionally bleak set. When you descend into Alzheimers you forget who you are. No coming back from that.

Still, the larger loss is to the importance of and subtext about the moral decay present in daughters Goneril and Regan, and in the villainous Edmund, who determinedly destroys his legitimate brother Edgar and his father, the Earl of Gloucester. It also makes the dogged, sacrificial devotion to Lear by the banished Earl of Kent make less sense, and it makes the king’s Fool occasionally rather superfluous.

Finally, this interpretation leaves Elliott’s Lear without much room to expand. By making him significantly altered even at the start, he blossoms into what becomes (in this interpretation) an unreasoning fury so early that the rest of his long journey becomes a certain amount of emotional station-keeping. Still, as expected, Elliot uses Shakespearean language as if it was his own, and consistently stays true to the concept of this particular form of human disintegration.

Indeed, the cast itself is splendid. Trisha Miller and Arie Thompson advance the two older sisters from a radiation of privilege and power to a sense of self-focused obsessive, destructive behavior. In this they are matched by Jeremy Rabb as Regan’s noble, but easily vicious husband, while Christopher Franciosa provides an increasingly empowered foil for Goneril as her equally high ranking spouse. Freddy Douglass radiates evil in every tone as the deadly Edmund, and Rafael Goldstein handles desperation well as the maligned Edgar.

Apollo Dukakis gives the Earl of Gloucester some of what one hopes to see in a Lear: a happiness born of power and authority which dissolves thanks to his undeservedly horrifying fate. Perhaps most memorable, in this production, is Kasey Mahaffy’s wry, tuneful and audacious Fool – whom Rodriguez-Elliott has given a most spectacularly apt exit.

Fred Kinney’s bleak but extremely adaptable set design underscores the militaristic nature of the piece, which has been reset as if in the mid-20th century. Angela Balogh Calin does her best work in designing the dresses worn by the royal women, while Robert Oriol’s music sets the sense of doom throughout the piece.

In short, this is a good production of “King Lear,” except that in one important way, it isn’t. All the parts are there, but in service to a somewhat skewed interpretation which denies the larger play much of its power. “King Lear” plays in repertory with “Ah, Wilderness” and the soon-to-open “Man of La Mancha”.

What: “King Lear” When: in repertory through May 6, 7:30 p.m. April 13 and May 4; 8 p.m. April 8, 14, 23 and May 5; 2 p.m. matinees April 8, 23, and May 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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 fiancé, 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

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

“All My Sons” at ANW: Timeless and Powerful

A moment of gentle humor in a suitably tense "All My Sons", Arthur Miller's great morality play, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

A moment of gentle humor in a suitably tense “All My Sons”, Arthur Miller’s great morality play, at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

When a play becomes a classic, the underlying message is timelessness. Somehow, the work has created characters which transcend their own age, and delivers a message with an innate universality. Most certainly this is true of the best works of Arthur Miller, often termed America’s premiere playwright. As if one needed proof, the solid rendition of his breakthrough work “All My Sons” at A Noise Within in Pasadena offers up that particular balance of the timely and the timeless, with a moral struggle as true today as it was in the years after World War II.

The story wrestles with profiteering during that war, but it provides a window on modern wrestles between the corporation and the idealist, and between morality and mammon. As many know, it centers on a small, midwestern town and the two families at the center of its greatest controversy. During the war, the company owned by Joe Keller and his partner and neighbor Steve Deever made cylinder heads for aircraft. One day some came out cracked, but this was disguised and the cylinder heads were delivered anyway, leading to the deaths of 21 pilots. Both men went to jail for the coverup, but Keller has since been released on appeal. Deever is still in prison.

Now, in the post-war era, Keller’s younger son Chris, a former army officer who lived through heated battles, helps run the business. He wants to become engaged to Deever’s daughter, Ann, though his mother Kate insists that this is impossible. Ann was Chris’ elder brother’s girl before the war, and though he and his plane went missing, Kate insists he’s going to return. Between Kate’s fervent belief, Chris’ intense belief that the only way his war experience can mean anything is if the world is better for what he and his men went through, and the hovering suspicions of Joe’s complicity in those pilot’s deaths, tension hovers ever near. Then news arrives which brings the tensions between truth and hope, between practical capitalism and idealism into sharp and painful focus.

Director Geoff Elliott has made a few interesting choices in this production. Though the costumes (Leah Piehl) and setting place this very firmly in the 1947 in which it was first performed, the casting – far more diverse than a midwestern neighborhood of that era would have seen – seeks for universality. Also, the director has cast himself as Joe Keller, the focal point of much of the play’s drama. This is a bit disappointing, as an independent eye would have challenged him – as has been true in some other fairly recent ANW productions – to do his most creative interior work. Here he sometimes reverts to what one can recognize as a more formulaic approach for his own part.

The same is not true for the rest of the cast, however, all of whom prove strong and compelling. Rafael Goldstein steps into Chris’ passion and belief system as if it was made for him. The events which begin to rock Chris’ understandings seem to hit on a visceral level, making the character rounded and deeply believable. Maegan McConnell gives Ann the balance of trust and nerve and direction, and the chemistry between her and Goldstein center the conundrums of this young couple’s desire to move forward. Most profoundly, Deborah Strang’s aching, obsessive Kate has a naturalness about her maternalism which anchors the entire proceeding.

Also worthy of considerable note are Aaron Blakely, briefly but intensely present as Ann’s furious brother almost wooed back into the neighborhood fold, E.K. Dagenfield and Natalie Reiko as a young couple unusually untouched by the chaos of war which surrounded most of their contemporaries, and Vega Pierce-English as the neighbor boy urged to virtuousness by the the comparatively questionable Joe. Perhaps most captivating is the underscore to the entire debate over money’s role in both happiness and morality exemplified by Jeremy Rabb’s country doctor dreaming of a life in research and June Carryl as his wife, insistent he live out his promise of financial security instead.

There is a reason students still study “All My Sons,” as its ethical dilemma seems as fresh today as ever. Joe’s insistence that money and leaving something for his son to inherit trumps anything else, contrasted to his son’s insistence on seeing the world beyond the factory door – that age-old battle between the market and humanity – could be reset in any time frame from the Civil War to this year’s presidential campaign. The art of Miller is to bring it down to the extremely personal, to people you believe you know. That, and the solidly interesting performances from most of the cast, make this definitely worth watching.

“All My Sons” is part of ANW’s three-play fall repertory season, alternating with “A Flea in Her Ear” and “Antigone”.

What: “All My Sons” When: Through November 21, 7 p.m. October 25 and November 15, 7:30 p.m. November 5, 8 p.m. October 30, November 6 and 21, 2 p.m. matinee October 25 and 30, November 15 and 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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

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

A Noise Within’s Threepenny Opera: Brecht but with a twist

Andrew Ableson, as Macheath, celebrates his wedding in A Noise Within's "The Threepenny Opera" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Ableson, as Macheath, celebrates his wedding in A Noise Within’s “The Threepenny Opera” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

by Frances Baum Nicholson

One of the signature elements of the entire arts movement in 1920s Berlin is “The Threepenny Opera,” a reworking of John Gay’s 18th century “The Beggar’s Opera” by German greats Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Stark, unrealistic by design, and seated in an essential socialist view of a harshly capitalist society, its jazzy, sometimes atonal songs and scruffy collection of anti-heroes poke a finger at all the conventions of society, theater and popular storytelling.

Now at A Noise Within in Pasadena, “The Threepenny Opera” melds the essential concepts of Brechtian theatrical production with the theatrical traditions of ANW’s artistic, and production, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliott with significant success. There are still some issues to be resolved, particularly as they relate to sound, and it is possible that Brecht purists will be frustrated by ANW’s tradition of cartoonish/clownish additions, and a significant amount of editing, but as a piece of theater it stands up.

The tale is of Macheath, or Mack the Knife, who has married Polly, the daughter of the scruffy Peachums, who operate a business making money out of organizing the beggars of the city. Furious over the marriage, they try to turn Macheath in to the police, thwarted by the fact the Chief of Police is Macheath’s old army comrade Tiger Brown. Eventually Macheath is arrested, then set free by another of his women, then rearrested when he can’t stay away from his favorite brothel, and finally saved by a completely ridiculous deus-ex-machina underscoring the ridiculousness of happy endings (a Brecht hallmark).

Andrew Ableson is that very balance of soullessness and grimy good looks as Macheath. Marisa Duchowny sings particularly well, and has perhaps the funniest (if also the most scatological) moment as the deflowered Polly. Geoff Elliott and most particularly Deborah Strang make the Peachums impressively unlikable, and yet humorously dark. Jeremy Rabb gives Tiger that manipulatable quality so necessary to be a crime lord’s dupe, while Maegan McConnell, as Tiger’s daughter, and Stasha Surdyke, as Jenny Diver, the prostitute who was once Mack’s central lover, offer up memorable portraits of those carried away by, or done with Mack’s inability to control his desires.

Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created costumes based on an essential, sometimes clownish miscellany, yet thrashed and dirty about the edges, with only Macheath briefly accorded a truly dapper look. Frederica Nascimento’s set – made heavily from bits of scaffolding and ladders – holds fairly true to the Brechtian ideal of minimalism and labels.

Indeed, the only problem (and it is essential) with this production as a piece of theater has to do with sound. The jazz band which accompanies the show is good, but in a space made mostly of concrete it is also loud. On several occasions it threatens to drown out the actors, whose mics are not all set at a strong enough level to overcome the music. Articulation is also a problem. For example, one can hear every word Strang sings, but many of the lyrics sung by the small chorus of ruffians, or by individual characters including Macheath himself, get lost as much due to diction as to being overwhelmed by music. This is a problem because the lyrics advance the storyline and enhance the characters. To not hear, and understand, them is to be lost in the plot.

Fortunately this is very solvable. That’s good because the rest of this is certainly impressive. One rarely gets to see a fully staged production of “The Threepenny Opera,” yet it has much to say about greed and inequity which is just as relevant as ever. For those to whom this matters, it is also impressively raw and fairly scatological, and is most definitely not a musical to bring younger children to.

“The Threepenny Opera” is the first of three productions which will play in repertory at ANW this spring. The next, “Figaro”, opens on March 7, followed at the end of the month by “Julius Caesar.”

What: “The Threepenny Opera” When: in repertory through May 17, 8 p.m. March 12, April 3, 11, 24 and 25, and May 9 and 16; 7 p.m. March 15 and May 3, 7:30 p.m. April 2 and 23, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 15, April 12 and 18, May 2, 9 and 17 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush. Group prices available. Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Marital Strife in Extremes: “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of "The Dance of Death" at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Long before Edward Albee’s portrait of a manipulative, wretched, psychologically sadistic marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there was August Strindberg. A man whose view of matrimony can be gleaned from the 19th century playwright’s four unsuccessful marriages, Strindberg examined the twists and turns of relationship in several works, but never created a more mutually vicious version than that in “The Dance of Death.”

Now opened as the third leg of their three-play fall repertory, the production of this work at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates an equally stunning portrait of deeply psychological marital dysfunction, laid out in front of a guest who finds himself gradually swept up in the grimly manipulative human interactions there. A new translation by Conor McPherson, receiving its west coast premiere, brings this play out of the somewhat dated tonalities often associated with “classic” works into a contemporary language framework which makes the play both more accessible and more disturbing.

Co-Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct this one “straight”, allowing the ferocity and isolation of the characters’ worlds to create movement without the unnecessary embellishments which sometime cloud their productions. The result is stark but continually interesting. Like watching a train-wreck, you just can’t look away from these two as they destroy the world around them. Even for the third character onstage, and certainly for us out there in the dark, that the point.

Elliott is Edgar, an aging misanthrope whose self-absorption and sloth have kept him a low ranking army officer assigned to a bleak island outpost. He has no friends, no money, possibly no food, but vibrates with a strangely concocted dignity nonetheless. Susan Angelo is Edgar’s wife of nearly 25 years, Alice. A former actress yearning for the life she could have led, she mourns absent children and concocts plots to overthrow her husband.

Into this world comes Alice’s cousin Kurt, played by Eric Curtis Johnson. An earnest man of significant rank, he has demons of his own to deal with, but soon falls into the clutches of these relatives who devour his finer sensitivities over the course of the play’s two hours.

Angelo and Elliott prove a fine match, with energy levels and intensities so similar the whole piece becomes an unpredictable fencing bout. Likewise Johnson provides an interesting counterbalance to all that ferocity, and proves subtle in his changes from compassion to an increasing loss of veneer. Indeed, this may be the most difficult part in the play – to change while those around you essentially do not.

Angela Balogh Calin has created an interesting set – at once solid and see-through. It makes for unique symbolism, but removes some of what would seem to be elemental claustrophobia implied in the script. Her costume designs, on the other hand, quickly and accurately evoke the needed elements of attitude, class and title, like visual shorthand.

“The Dance of Death” provides a fascinating character study, and – as with Albee’s later play – considerable meat for discussion. Its view of marriage as a death match, and its dismissal of the collateral damage are disturbingly timeless, making it surprising the play isn’t done more often. Perhaps this new translation will help change that, so that like “Miss Julie,” this Strindberg work becomes a part of the canon.

In the meantime, though not for the faint of heart, “The Dance with Death” is well worth seeing. Just don’t expect something Halloween-y. Sadly, its Poe-esque name has already led to some misconceptions in that department.

What: “The Dance of Death” When: in repertory with “The Tempest” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 8 p.m. October 24, 25, 31, and November 15; 7:30 p.m. October 30; 7 p.m. November 9 and 23; 2 p.m. October 25, November 15 and November 23 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush with ID, group rates available Info: (626) 356-3100, ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Subtle and Stunning: “Come Back, Little Sheba” renewed at A Noise Within

Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott as Lola and Doc in the fine A Noise Within production of Come Back, Little Sheba [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang and Geoff Elliott as Lola and Doc in the fine A Noise Within production of Come Back, Little Sheba [photo: Craig Schwartz]

For some, William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba” is from another time – close enough to be discomforting but not close enough to be relevant. I might have believed so too, except for a wise and understated performance of the work just opened at A Noise Within. There, the time frame has the same impact as the set: it simply provides a place where troubled, very human characters can exist. Those characters themselves, in the hands of a strong and insightful cast, prove timeless in their very humanity. All at once, this play is not a dinosaur, but a window on the human soul. And, quite unlike the more familiar renditions, there is a quiet knot of hope in there somewhere.

The tale is, for some, a familiar one. Doc and Lola live in a small house somewhere in the midwest. He is a chiropractor, having had to give up a promising medical education when Lola became pregnant. They then lost the baby. Now Lola, heavy and stupefyingly lonely, grasps at anyone who walks in the door as a source of conversation. Doc, after a long bout of drunkenness, has been in AA for almost a year and is deeply proud of his own self control. Yet this is powered by an inability to look back – in conflict with Lola’s longing for her popular and coquettish youth.

Lili Fuller and Miles Gaston Villanueva as the new, potentially disturbing generation [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lili Fuller and Miles Gaston Villanueva as the new, potentially disturbing generation [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Into this world has come a boarder: a young college student named Marie. She brings a sweetness, but a generational shift: holding a useful, handsome but somewhat vapid boyfriend intimately close even as she is engaged to a rising young businessman back in her home town. For Lola, she is a lovely reminder of her own days of popularity. For Doc, she is a reminder of his youth, and the purity he lost. What will happen if he finds out she isn’t the sweet, pure thing he believes her to be?

The internal struggles of Lola and Doc power the piece. Though not much happens to change them in the script itself, it is up to the actors to find the subtle adjustments which come from wrestling with boredom and demons and a shifting world. This task is left to Deborah Strang, whose portraits are always an intellectual and emotional treat, and Geoff Elliott in perhaps the most underplayed and cerebral turn of his in recent memory. Between them they keep the play fascinating.

Along with these two, Lili Fuller makes a sweet-faced, but calculating Marie, Miles Gaston Villanueva’s jock of a boyfriend manages to be rather narcissistic and detached from seriousness without devolving into stereotype, and in a brief appearance Paul Culos gives the out-of-town fiancé the aura of success and single-mindedness without the snobby elitism which sometimes colors the character. Mitchell Edmonds makes Doc’s AA sponsor a warm, determined and practical guy, while John Klopping has a lovely time as the earnest young milkman flattered by Lola’s interest in his self-improvement. Jill Hill makes lovely work of the neighbor woman, whose shift in tone and attitude seem natural and heartfelt.

Pulled together by director Elliott and co-director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, this “Come Back, Little Sheba” has a gentle rhythm, a terrific use of space, and – and I say it once again – an underplayed subtlety which makes the whole thing hum along. Dramatic moments mean something when everything else is not played at forte, and the opportunity to watch the internal wrestlings in, particularly, Strang’s face ends up telling so much more than if everything was rather overblown.

One must make a nod to Stephen Gifford’s representative set design, and to Leah Piehl’s solidly period costumes. They ground the play, as do the equally period props and furniture amassed by Kristina Teves.

As for the play itself, yes, the material is dated. How many middle-to-low income couples, even in the midwest, can afford to have the wife stay at home? How many pregnant girls these days face shotgun marriages? Our post-birth control pill age is far more apt to accept a variety of ethical models of behavior, and to consider the narrower views of sex in that generation to be fusty and unworkable. Still, those things are window-dressing in a work about struggle, identity and loneliness. That is the core of this classic play, at least in this production.

As a result, a treasure has been discovered where there might easily have been something less interesting. That is worth celebrating.

What: “Come Back, Little Sheba” When: Through May 17 in repertory with “MacBeth” and “Tartuffe,” 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.April 13 and May 4; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., April 26 and May 10; 8 p.m., April 25, May 16 and 17; 7:30 p.m. May 15 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

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