Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Geoff Elliott

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

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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 fiancĂ© 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

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

When All is Lost, What is All?: “Endgame” at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Jeremy Rabb in "Endgame" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Geoff Elliott and Jeremy Rabb in “Endgame” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

In the trio of plays being done in repertory at A Noise Within this fall, the common theme is loss. “Pericles” loses his family. The Actor in “The Guardsman” loses faith in his wife. And then there is “Endgame,” the nihilistic Samuel Beckett play in which – quite literally – all is lost. Typical of absurdism, and certainly of Beckett, the how and the what are left fairly ambiguous, and the ends don’t tie up neatly, but the discussion of nothingness is, to a great extent, the point.

I have spent much of my life entertained by absurdism. The denial of societal norms, and the innate sense of the ridiculousness of life itself – aligned as it is with the inability to wrap anything up in a neat package – has appealed to me as an intellectual challenge, and sometimes as a source of wry, at times inexplicable humor.

Scholars will tell you absurdism informs the intellectual spirit of the mid-20th century. War, Fascism, Stalinism, and all of the many social movements and scientific expansions which seemed a denial of the foundations of western culture created a sense of purposeless and doom only enhanced by the nuclear age. Those who wrote of this, saw humanity as devoid of any real meaning – completely absurd, in the most vacant sense. This shines particularly brightly in “Endgame,” which works to codify humans in the era of nothingness.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Hamm, a man left blind and incapacitated by whatever it is which has destroyed everything. In trash cans near his wheelchair -ish throne exist his mother and father. Shuffling about the room is his servant, Clov. All is decay. Nothing has a point. Hamm and Clov discuss whether to live or die with dispassion. Empathy is gone. Habit defines purpose. There is no reason to do what they do. Nothing will improve, and the idea of anything moving forward is so terrifying they dare not let a flea live to procreate. Their greatest communal fear is that they should in some way mean something.

Director Geoff Elliott has set the play in the appropriately timeless otherwhere, redolent of decay, and crafted the stage patterns with a formative patterning which enhances the theme. His Hamm (he plays the lead as well) sits on a kind of throne on casters, immobilized by weight. As such, he never really leaves center stage.

There, his steady presence and rarely changing delivery, while epitomizing the senselessness of this particular kind of end of days, becomes a drone which proves as lulling as it does profound. It is admittedly difficult to give life to a character trapped in a chair – one of Beckett’s more theatrical points. Still, this calm approach to nothingness – when voice is all one can reach out with – should not be so devoid of emotion that the listener disconnects completely, even in a Beckett play.

Jeremy Rabb’s Clov is, by contrast, fully realized in his calm despair, even while his modulations are appropriately curtailed. And he does have the advantage of movement. His way of walking thus helps codify the undercurrent of the play. Rather than moving “stiffly,” as is often done, he has a fascinating, floor-bound shuffle and a pre-ordained set of paths which speak to the treadmill of life as profoundly as any other element. Indeed, as this movement winds down, it defines the vacancy which will come.

Mitchell Edmonds gives a particular bitter humor to Nagg, Hamm’s father occasionally produced from the trash can. Likewise, Jill Hill’s comparatively brief appearance from the other can as Hamm’s mother Nell keeps to the flavor and the rhythm of the play.

But Rabb and his interaction with Elliott are the essentials. In this they are aided by Jeanine A Ringer’s dry and angular backdrop-like set, and most specifically by the carefully crafted spaces created by Karyn D. Lawrence’s lighting design. Even in nothingness one must have focus, and that is what Lawrence’s subtlety achieves.

As with much of Beckett’s work, plot and character do not tell you what this play is about. As modern society debates the fall of empires and the questionable meanings of life at present, it is good to look at a play about, well, nothing. And in Beckett’s hands that nothing says much about what has been, or may be lost.

As such, the three plays in repertory at A Noise Within create a full circle of human commentary, from the legendary and seemingly gods-driven misfortunes of a classical king, through the petty distrusts of the wealthy and famous, to the end of all human purpose. Quite a ride.

What: “Endgame” When: in repertory through November 23, 8 p.m. November 8, 9, 22 and 23, 7 p.m. November 3 and 17, 7:30 p.m. November 14, and 2 p.m. November 3, 9, 17 and 23. 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

Of Death and Stones: “Eurydice” at A Noise Within

L to R: Kelly Ehlert, Abigail Marks, Jessie Losch, and Jules Willcox  in "Eurydice" at A Noise Within

L to R: Kelly Ehlert, Abigail Marks, Jessie Losch, and Jules Willcox in “Eurydice” at A Noise Within

I have always had a problem with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, for many reasons. I am not alone in this. Take, as example, British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, who examines a number of myths and historical figures from a female perspective in her book “The World’s Wife.” Her Eurydice, who really has no interest in returning to the world of the living, finally figures out how to stop Orpheus from leading her into daylight by appealing to his ego: “My voice shook when I spoke – Orpheus, your poem’s a masterpiece. I’d love to hear it again…”

This idea of a Eurydice in control of her own fate also appears in Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of the classic myth, simply titled “Eurydice.” Now at A Noise Within, it uses the myth to look at the whole nature of death. Unlike, say, Thornton Wilder’s version of the dead, where they gradually detach from earth while waiting for something eternal to come out, the death of Ruhl’s Hades is a more sudden divorce from the living: language and human connection gone in an instant. Only Eurydice and the father who never knew her manage to avoid this oblivion – much to the disquiet of the stones who watch over it all.

In flashback and reverie we see how it all came about: the conventionality of a wedding which made the rather geeky Orpheus change from something intriguing to something mundane, the curious lure of danger which leads Eurydice to her death, the holding on past one’s own time which makes Orpheus’ quest unfortunate.

In director Geoff Elliott’s hands, this reverie becomes perhaps overly quiet. Indeed, with the exception of moments when the stones – who act as Greek chorus – take over, the entire enterprise seems dreamy to the point of simply being slow. Some of this may come from Elliott being in the show he’s directing. It’s hard in such a “think piece” not to have an observer help pace the thing.

Jules Willcox’s Eurydice vibrates with intelligence, a certain amount of naivete and a curiosity tinged with resistance. Graham Sibley’s overt enthusiasm and nerdish passion make him the milquetoast to her vinegar: a combination virtually guaranteed not to work. Ryan Vincent Anderson represents everything interesting in the “Nasty Interesting Man” who later turns out to be Hades himself, luring Eurydice away from her own wedding and into the underworld. Elliott plays Eurydice’s father – a man of conventional dreams saddened to be able to see his daughter grow up only from the distance of the dead.

Jules Willcox, as Eurydice, and Graham Sibley as Orpheus, dance at their wedding while Geoff Elliott looks on [photos by Craig Schwartz]

Jules Willcox, as Eurydice, and Graham Sibley as Orpheus, dance at their wedding while Geoff Elliott looks on [photos by Craig Schwartz]

Still, all of this would be comparatively bland were it not for Abigail Marks, Jessie Losch and Kelly Ehlert, as the stones. Their concerted reactions to the action, and their constant critical commentary proves delightful, and provides most of the memorable moments in the play. For one thing, their choreography in movement and speech have a sharp, crisp quality missing from just about everything else. And they are very funny, very often.

So, essentially, with the exception of “stone moments,” this “Eurydice” has its intriguing elements, but they don’t win. In attempting a sort of otherworldly, velvet quality, the show seems to creep along. Kudos go to Brian Gale for fascinating projections which take us from setting to setting with ease, and to scenic designer Jeanine A. Ringer, if for nothing else than figuring out how to contain rain in an elevator.

If this sounds interesting, go take a look. “Eurydice” is playing in repertory with their astonishing production of “The Grapes of Wrath”. Perhaps the contrast to that beautifully paced production is part of the problem.

What: “Eurydice” When: Through May 19, in a repertory schedule, 8 p.m. selected Fridays, 2 p.m. and/or 8 p.m. selected Saturdays, 2 p.m. and/or 7 p.m. selected Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

Morality’s the Thing: Well-played ethical wrangling in Shaw’s “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at A Noise Within

L to R: Jason Dechert, as an artist threatened by illness, consults doctors played by Apollo Dukakis, Geoff Elliott, Robertson Dean, & Freddy Douglas in “The Doctor’s Dilemma” at A Noise Within (photo: Craig Schwartz)


Unless you are particularly fascinated by the man’s work, most people never get around to the more obscure plays of George Bernard Shaw. After “Pygmalion,” “Major Barbara,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and perhaps “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” the other plays he wrote – and there were more than 50 – are rarely seen, at least in one piece. Indeed, I have heard many of his later works codified as “costumed panel discussions.” It is hard to make such ideological commentaries theatrical. But it isn’t impossible.

Which brings me to A Noise Within’s new production of “The Doctor’s Dilemma.” The play, to which Shaw wrote (as he sometimes did) a philosophical introduction longer than the play itself, manages to bring together his general distrust for the medical profession, his fascination with the limitations of the morality of his day, and his personal, unique logic. It is left to director Damaso Rodriguez to make the thing come to life – to have us care in a more than intellectual way about characters who exist primarily to challenge the intellect. That this is managed, more often than not, is due to Rodriguez’s own vision and a precise and polished ensemble cast.

Sir Colenso Rodgeon has, it appears, come up with a treatment for tuberculosis. Still in the experimental stages, the list of his patients must be limited by his funding and the size of his staff. That list is full when the beautiful wife of an artist arrives to beg her husband be included in his study because of his larger value to society. Then, just as this is to move forward, information about an indigent but completely selfless fellow physician’s equally profound illness, and about the questionable morality of the artist, bring him up short. How should this possible life or death decision be made?

Geoff Elliott plays Rodgeon as a gentle man nonetheless supremely confident in his own abilities and, despite his protestations, made comfortable by his ability to play god. His somewhat childish underpinnings are only revealed in his choice of housekeepers – a nurturing, wise old woman played with delightful individuality by Deborah Strang.

Among the other medical men who gather around him, Apollo Dukakis stumbles a bit, but harrumphs nicely as a retired old-time medical man. Robertson Dean and Freddy Douglas make distinctly individual characters out of the two doctors obsessed with their differing, single diagnoses for all ailments. David LM McIntyre’s brief appearance as their destitute yet honorable, ill colleague manages to be adamantly noble and mildly pitiful at once.

Yet, when it comes to creating characters worth remembering, it is Jason Dechert’s charmingly amoral artist whose confident calm and disarmingly illogical logic power the play’s best moments. Combined with Jules Willcox as the archetypical Shavian heroine – confident in her power of persuasion and far more observant than given credit for – they pin this whole piece together. Rafael Goldstein and Kelly Ehlert round out the cast in minor but important roles.

Nods also to Susah Gratch, whose ability to create a semblance of Victorian solidity from airy bits of set both grounds and lightens the piece. Leah Piehl’s costumes hint at the transitional nature of the time (the play was written in 1911), though some of Willcox’s finery seems to float a bit much between periods.

Still, it must be said that the root of the play, and the main argument one will walk away with, is an intricate examination of ethics. Ethics in the hands of Shaw involves a lot of talk. The play runs, with intermission, about 2 3/4 hours – typical for Shaw, but a bit much for some modern theatergoers.

So, go with your thinking cap on, and the patience to hear the man out. You know he’s saying something he sees as important when one of his characters (in this case, the artist) quotes Shaw himself, by name, and when one of the silliest characters strings together random phrases from Shakespeare (the playwright Shaw saw as his chief rival). What he has to say will leave most modern folk squirming a bit, which is just what he was after.

What: “The Doctor’s Dilemma” When: in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” on selected dates through November 25, 8 p.m Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

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