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Engaging “A Christmas Carol” Charms at A Noise Within

Alan Blumenfeld (Christmas Present) and Geoff Elliott (Scrooge) in ANW's A Christmas Carol. [Photo Craig Schwartz]

Alan Blumenfeld (Christmas Present) and Geoff Elliott (Scrooge) in ANW’s A Christmas Carol. [Photo Craig Schwartz]

For some theatrical companies, versions of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” have become an annual staple. One such theater is A Noise Within, in Pasadena. When they first moved from Glendale to this, their permanent home, I went to see what they’d done with the time-honored story, and was generally pleased even though there was a most odd and somewhat deflating costuming choice at the end which truly got in the way. Now, four years later, I decided it was probably time to take another look.

When evaluating what spectacle may be added to this tale, one must always remember that Dickens, and many after him up to and including Patrick Stewart, have made theater by simply reading the thing aloud onstage. It is that powerful all on its own. What theatricality one adds must never get in the way of the story itself, and – at least in my book – retain the innate spookiness of the thing which makes Scrooge’s fear real and his conversion more understandable.

A Noise Within’s co-artistic directors, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who also co-direct this production, have honored this concept most of the time. There are still signature dollops of ensemble in anachronistic diaphanous fluff and bowler hats, but they are mostly enhancing the scary or dreamlike bits. Thus, in Elliott’s adaptation, the original author is treated as star of the piece.

Freddy Douglas acts as narrator, in contemporary dress, reading Dickens’ evocative descriptions and setting up each scene. Geoff Elliott gives Scrooge the appropriate crustiness and self-absorption, and makes his gradual softening seem more organic to his own history. Eric Curtis Johnson creates a gentle, bookish Cratchit, which balances well against Elliott’s character.

The ensemble accompanying these central figures gives each of a wide variety of characters individuality and interest, powering the story along.

Among the characters they create, Jill Hill gives Mrs. Cratchit a lovely balance of humanity and authority, creating a sense of unity and family. Indeed. Savannah Gilmore, Jack Elliott, Samuel Genghis Christian and Rigel Blue Pierce-English work well together to create a happy, if impoverished Cratchit household, joined by Eli Stuart’s genuinely charming Tiny Tim. Rafael Goldstein gives Scrooge’s nephew Fred a gentle nature and radiant optimism, Alison Elliott gives a quiet bitterness to Scooge’s fiancĂ©, Belle, and Jeremy Rabb creates an almost ferociously sad aspect as Marley’s ghost.

As for the beneficial visiting ghosts, Deborah Strang’s otherworldly sprite works well as the Ghost of Christmas Past, emphasizing the warmth of Scrooge’s younger self. Stephen Weingartner’s huge and rather odd-looking Ghost of Christmas Present still embodies the essence of Dickens’ cheerful view of the holiday, and the underpinnings of deprivation which need to be addressed.

In a most exciting change from my previous experience of ANW’s version of this classic, the unnamed Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come offers up a far more Dickensian, darkly hooded, spooky, silent figure which, when combined with an impressive headstone, cements Scrooge’s rising terror at what might become of him. Jeanine A. Ringer’s mobile set and prop pieces help the necessarily episodic tale flow as a single piece, as the story itself does.

In short, the A Noise Within production of “A Christmas Carol” offers a genuine treat, and stays generally true to the Dickensian. Stay after the show for a chance of photographs with the major characters.

What: “A Christmas Carol” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday December 21 and 22, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, with student and Sunday rush tickets available for certain performances Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or

Timeless Silliness: “The Importance of Being Earnest” at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]”

Of all the works of Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” remains the most commonly produced. This, in part, because the tale is so silly, and in part because it pillories pomposity and rigid morality with such complete delight. Making fun of vapidity, the class system, and the spoiled is always a hit.

Now in a very classy new rendition at A Noise Within, the show offers up some interesting choices, a beautiful setting, and all of that satisfyingly uncomplicated humor. It makes for a relaxing, entertaining evening.

The tale, for someone who somehow has not managed to bump into the thing before, is essentially this: Jack Worthing, a country squire with responsibilities for a young and impressionable ward, has created an alternate persona so he can be frivolous when in London: a fictional brother named Earnest, whose name he adopts upon arrival in the city. As such he becomes engaged to Gwendolyn, the daughter of a noblewoman, who states she cannot marry anyone whose name is not Earnest.

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jack’s closest city friend, Algernon, already adroit at telling tales to avoid social obligations, adopts the persona of Earnest in order to ingratiate himself with Jack’s ward in the country, Cecily. Indeed, he proposes to her. Then Cecily and Gwendolyn meet, and this becomes complicated, to say the least, as they discover they are both engaged to Earnest Worthing. Comedy ensues.

Adam Haas Hunter makes a most engaging Algernon, draping himself across furniture and radiating a rather dissipated innocence. By comparison, Christopher Salazar’s Jack, though engaging in the second act country setting, seems a bit underplayed as the supposedly dissolute Earnest (something not helped by the only uninspired costume in the show).
Cecily and Gwendolyn
Jean Gilpin gives the pompous Lady Bracknell a wry sense of humor along with the usual officiousness, which makes her far more fun to watch. Carolyn Ratteray as Gwendolyn, and Marisa Duchowny as Cecily utter the vapid piffle of their parts with such earnest and convicted intent as to heighten the comic aspects of their moments on stage.

Jill Hill makes a fussy and more than usually bemused Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, and Alberto Isaac leers with such innocence at her, as the country parson, that there is great charm in the result. Also worthy of note is Apollo Dukakis, taking on the roles of both Algernon’s and Jack’s household servants with a worldy-wise air in once case and a bemused confusion in the other.

Director Michael Michetti has brought an unusual but logical spin by turning the dilettante Algernon into Wilde himself, complete with flowing locks and moderately outrageous clothes. Operating on a set, by Jeanine A. Ringer, with the feel of a hand-colored pencil drawing, and with costumes by Garry D. Lennon which echo the color scheme and add their own little bit of the florid (with the exception of the instance noted above), there is a unified feeling to this production which does nothing but enhance the comic flow.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, frankly, difficult to kill, but is far more satisfying in the hands of experts. The production at A Noise Within fits that bill almost all the time, leaving one laughing and charmed by a silliness which has remained constant for over 100 years.

What: “The Importance of Being Earnest” When: In repertory through November 22 – 8 p.m. October 4 and November 8, 14 and 21, 7:30 p.m. October 23 and 13, and 2 p.m. October 5 and November 2, 8, and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, with student rush and group ticket prices available Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or

“Pericles, Prince of Tyre” at A Noise Within: Playing it like they mean it

Deborah Strang, as Gower, and her chorus as narrators in Pericles at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Deborah Strang, as Gower, and her chorus as narrators in Pericles at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Of all of the plays published in editions of Shakespeare’s complete works, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” has the most tenuous connection with him. Most, though not all scholars believe it to be only about half by Shakespeare – a fact which seems backed up by the comparatively clumsy poetry in certain sections of the work. As a story, it proves the Shakespearean equivalent of a soap opera – rife with coincidence, supposed deaths, and tormented souls which, though not unusual in Elizabethan drama in general, is over the top (or at least overly two dimentional) for the Bard.

For this reason, “Pericles” is not often produced. If a company chooses to take it on, they must play it absolutely straight – a tough task with a storyline so camp. Which brings us to the production currently one of three plays in repertory at A Noise Within, in Pasadena. Here, this episodic and ridiculous tale proves entertaining in part because of the quality of the acting, in part because of a set and vision which take it out of time and work well on an audience’s “imaginary forces”, and in part because it is played absolutely as if it is the best thing the Bard ever wrote.

The tale is of the young king of Tyre, who goes adventuring upon the waves. As a good hero must, he finds a lovely princess he can only win if he solves a riddle. The problem is, when he does it infuriates the asker, who orders him killed. He runs, is shipwrecked, falls for another princess, marries her and then must run again. Another shipwreck, a supposed death in childbirth, a fantastical waterproof burial at sea, a bride on a beach who becomes a temple votress. Our hero parks his newborn baby with a friendly royal in another land. Later, jealousy, a princess in a brothel saving her virginity with noble speech, and after more death threat-driven, salt-laden travels, Pericles reappears and the entire family reunites. Got it?

Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott has a penchant for creating a commedia-esque chorus for her Shakespearean productions, and here it works to keep things light and appropriately otherworldly. Combined with Jeanine A. Ringer’s versatile, compartmentalized wall-as-set and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes – themselves a fantastical whirlwind of eras and styles – the entire piece is allowed a constant, upbeat pacing, and firmly planted in the world of fantasy.

Jason Dechert  as the young Pericles

Jason Dechert as the young Pericles

Jason Dechert is, for most of the tale, the consistently honorable, consistently thwarted young Pericles. His earnestness and emotional engagement keep the play moving. As the three central princesses who affect his life, Jules Willcox manages to shift character enough keep the three as specific entities with separate reactions to our hero prince. Guiding us through their various adventures as narrator is the clown-like Gower, given authority and an interesting spin by Deborah Strang.

Jane Macfie gives the combined role of Dionyza (no ruler of her land, instead of the wife of one) a balance of warmth and conniving necessary to put Pericles’ daughter in peril. Michael Stone Forrest has a ball as the warm king of the warm land from which Pericles receives a bride. As the warped old king whose anger threatens our prince, and as the aged Pericles finally home from his wanderings, Thomas Tofel creates two very distinct people – one conniving, and one at the end of his rope.

Supporting them, in a variety of essential but changing roles is a solid ensemble, some becoming singular characters, others acting as crowd and back-up chorus to Gower. Through them this flow which makes the play work moves on fairly seamlessly. And that is the greatest challenge of this work, other than taking it seriously: keeping the audience engaged while the story hops gleefully all over the Mediterranean.

In the end, “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” is still a problematic bit of Shakespeare. However, it’s fun to see it done with such verve and intention. Certainly, it is a challenge to its performers, particularly those who embody many different guises during the course of the story. For a play rarely done, and even more rarely done well, this is a Shakespeare nut’s treat and an education for everyone else.

What: “Pericles, Prince of Tyre” When: in repertory through November 24: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m. Thursday Nov. 7, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, November 24 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext 1 or

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