Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Jenny Foldenauer

A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities”: character, not melodrama

Frederick Stuart makes a particularly complex Sydney Carton in A Noise Within’s “A Tale of Two Cities” [photo: Craig Schwartz]


Any time someone translates a novel to the stage, there is risk involved. The depth of interior monologue, the detail of setting and character, the convolutions of plot and emotion, even the poetry of language used to provide all of this, are all limited by the confines of the stage and the time frame expected of a standard play.

Never is this more true than when dramatizing the works of Charles Dickens. A man who loved theater, his works are in many ways quite theatrical, but they are also often intricate, interior and long. One either carves much of the detailed verbiage away, as has been done several ways for, say, “Oliver Twist,” or one extends the play into two parts, as the Royal Shakespeare Company did for “Nicholas Nickleby”. Michael Poulton’s adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” now open at A Noise Within in Pasadena chooses the former, but in the process creates a focus on the meat of Dickens’ story: that of the dangers of both oligarchy and chaos.

For those who did not read the novel in high school (or after) the play follows the fortunes of Charles Darnay, a French aristocrat who renounces his noble family for a life of work in Britain just as the French Revolution sparks. In Britain he must fight accusations of being a spy, and in the process becomes close to three people who will define his life.

One is Dr. Manette, long a prisoner in the Bastille, whom he assists in traveling safely from France to England. Another is Manette’s daughter Lucie, whom Darnay marries. The third is the profligate Sydney Carton, his virtual look-alike, whose friendship with Darnay, and wistful love for Lucie provide lifelines for a man who, though young, sees himself as already worthless and beyond redemption. Then Darnay’s servant begs him to return to revolutionary France at the height of the Reign of Terror to save his life.

As adapted by Poulton, this becomes both a character study, and an examination of the explosion and vengeance resulting from an oligarchy pushing inequality too far. As a result, it avoids the more Victorian villainization of the rebels, turns the story to focus on personal struggles and definitions of justice, and manages to ennoble the wayward Carton without whitewashing his behaviors or his depression. As directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, this episodic and complex tale is given a sense of seamlessness which allows the main themes to rise.

Tavis Doucette makes an earnest and straightforward Darnay. Emily Goss provides a sense of innocence, bravery and devotion as Lucie, while Nicholas Hormann delivers a calm practicality as her father Dr. Manette. Also important is Michael Stone Forrest, who gives the English banker Mr. Lorry a sense of presence and a force of personality which ties together much of the most tense period in the storyline. Trisha Miller, as Lucie’s devoted governess, radiates the strength and indignation of the British servant class. Abby Craden make the villain, Madame Defarge, most convincing, but in a way which underscores this French peasant’s reasons for her searing hatred of Darnay’s family.

Still, the center of the tale in this rendition is Frederick Stuart’s Sydney Carton. Stuart makes Carton’s dissolution more a symptom of depression and oppression by opportunistic employers than simply a sin in and of itself. The other characters’ sympathy for him proves more justifiable, and his willingness to lean toward nobility and sacrifice far more logical. It’s a powerful performance.

Also integral to the production’s success are Jenny Foldenauer’s costumes which, with the exception of a couple of barrister wigs, proves authentic and unexaggerated. Fred Kinney’s modular set pieces, coupled with Kristin Campbell’s projections create drama out of crates and partitions in very effective ways, allowing swift changes of scene in the process. Robert Oriol’s original songs bring the emotional backdrop of the era’s tensions.

“A Tale of Two Cities”, as a story, is a classic in every sense of the word. At ANW it is done justice in many ways. Though some purists may miss a concentration on the inner monologues which make Dickensian characters so interesting and yet so hard to portray, this version when performed this well proves that a tale of upheaval and ethics plays well to a modern audience. Indeed, given the current state of the world, a discussion of oppression, revenge, and ethical choices takes on greater significance.

What: “A Tale of Two Cities” When: through November 19, 7 p.m. October 29, and November 19, 7:30 p.m. October 19 and November 9, 8 p.m. September 29 and 30, November 4 and 10, with 2 p.m. matinees September 30, October 29, November 4 and 19 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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Pared Down, Powered Up: “Antigone” at ANW

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Stephen Weingartner (Guard) and Emily James (Antigone). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

In an art form where longevity can be used by some to indicate intrinsic value, at least in the form of universality, none achieve this at a higher level than the plays of the Ancient Greeks. Certainly,Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy has played upon the imagination of human societies far beyond the original parameters of the people for whom it was written. Usually, one discusses the angst, tragic flaws and fate of “Oedipus the King,” but in modern times – as in the time when Jean Anouilh first translated and adapted it – the greatest focus should be the ethical and moral dilemmas at the heart of the second play, “Antigone.”

Now in a new translation and further adaptation of the Anouilh version by director Robertson Dean, A Noise Within’s “Antigone” proves an admittedly truncated, elemental edition. Narrowed down to its essentials, the grand Greek speeches reworked to resonate with a modern audience, the power of the essential struggles of its protagonists leaps out in a way which makes ancient struggles modern.

The tale remains essentially the same, though – like Anouilh’s version – it is placed in an era reminiscent of the late 1930s (Anouilh was actually writing his version as the Germans entered Paris). Oedipus is gone, his sons have fought to the death over who should run Thebes. Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon backed one of the brothers, Eteocles, over the rebellious Polynices, and as a result has taken over as king after both brothers die in battle. To declare the rebellion dead, he has decreed that nobody shall bury Polynices’ body so that it may rot in public as a warning to all further rebels. Should anyone bury the body, that person shall be condemned to death.

Which leaves their sister, Antigone, with an agonizing ethical choice. If she buries the body of her brother, she shall die. If she she leaves it there to disintegrate she shall have allowed something immoral to happen that she could have stopped. Which is more important, her life or her conscience. For Antigone this is no choice at all, but to those around her more versed in political expediency, the choices she wants to make are either idiotic or tragically pointless. Yet, she knows what she believes is the right thing to do.

This production jumps to vivid life due largely to Emily James’ impressively, passionately intense Antigone. Small, and physically fragile, James’ heroine is vibrantly resolute – absolutely positive she is taking the only action possible, and yet equally sure it is an action which should harm no other. Riveting from start to end, she is impossible not to watch.

Eric Curtis Johnson makes Creon the consummate politician, even in exhaustion seeing life as a negotiation and honor as relative, at least until it hits too close to home. Brick Patrick moves Creon’s son, Antigone’s fiancĂ©, from a casual nobility to a resolute passion as his world increasingly wraps around the fate of his intended. Inger Tudor makes the chorus – a character Dean has given a much larger roll, in that she speaks the words of several characters other than her own – the voice of reason as she sets and expands the tale beyond the intimate palace space.

Smaller parts are also impressively done. Lorna Raver fusses well as the shaken nurse. As Antigone’s more elegant sister Ismene, Kyla Garcia becomes a balance to the title character’s determined single-mindedness, as she ranges from fear to compromise with little effect on the outcome. Stephen Weingartner plays the parts once handed to three separate guards – the realist of the piece – whose focus is not on the reason for war or the ethics of Antigone’s actions, but on how it will affect his future in his chosen occupation.

All of this plays against Frederica Nascimento’s junk pile of a set, complete with a radio whose blasts of Edith Piaf set the scene as much as the column bases and collapsed chandeliers. Jenny Foldenauer’s costuming captures a time period without being too specific, and Martin Carrillo’s sound design keeps the audience circled with the continuing danger outside the door.

This “Antigone” has been pared down enough to be performed without an intermission, and that works too as the tension builds toward the known but still agonizing end. As director, Dean keeps the thing moving, literally, which is terribly important in a play which is mostly about fine, direct, but potentially static talk. As a result, one seems to barely breathe from start to finish – a most satisfying way to see a great and ancient work made new.

“Antigone” plays in repertory with “A Flea in Her Ear” and the upcoming “All My Sons.”

What: “Antigone” When: Through November 20, 7 p.m. October 4, and November 8, 7:30 p.m. October 29 and November 19, 8 p.m. October 24, November 14 and 20, 2:00 p.m. October 4, 24, November 8 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 and up, with student rush with ID an hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Witches Rule the Dark in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth”

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated "MacBeth" at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elijah Alexander is the ill-fated “MacBeth” at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Like any big Shakespeare fan, I collect productions of “MacBeth.” This dark and cynical tale contains some of the Bard’s finest language, and its focus on the rapidity with which ambition can overtake ethics certainly resonates in our modern world. Besides, its mystical aspects provide a rich canvas for a good director. What form shall the witches take? How shall the superstitions inherent in the piece be incorporated into the larger play?

Now, at A Noise Within in Pasadena, director Larry Carpenter has set his play in no time and every time, where swords occasionally compete with pistols and modern military garb blends with 15th century armor. In the midst of it all, three amorphous characters take on most of the “minor” roles – servants, doctors, murderers – when not embodying the witches who spark the madness. It’s great entertainment, with its aura of doom and its constant physical engagement with the audience. Even some of those scenes which often become awkward have a consistency of vision which pull them into the spookiness of the whole.

Elijah Alexander is MacBeth, making him a likable man, but a man of physicality – easily manipulated by desires, whether for his honor, his wife, or power – not a man to ruminate on consequences before it is too late. Jules Willcox steams as his lady, radiating a passion which moves MacBeth to murder, yet is not going to be able to control the resulting whirlwind which puts him largely beyond her reach. As these two collide with and repel each other, the rest of a strong cast rounds out the story of their whirlwind.

Matt Orduna’s solidly noble Duncan plays well against MacBeth’s lighter-weight sensibility. Leith Burke’s Banquo becomes the image of the stalwart, if admittedly somewhat ambitious friend, until he is undone. David DeSantos’s resolute, wise MacDuff, gradually working to right the ship of Scotland, echoes Duncan’s nobility and intelligence. Feodor Chin, as that odd combination of wisdom and changeable nature, Duncan’s son Malcolm, makes his vagaries almost make sense. Katie Pelensky and Theo Taplitz, as MacDuff’s doomed wife and son, create a moment of light and home in the midst of the terror.

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within's "MacBeth" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Amin El Gamal is a witch and a very creepy servant in A Noise Within’s “MacBeth” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Still, it is the witches who give the play its focus and fascination. Amin El Gamal, Thom Rivera and Jeremy Rabb create the rich foreboding and mystery which elevates this production, not only in their initial roles but as many other smaller elements – a necessity when spreading 28 major and minor characters among a cast of 17. They also effectively underscore how central the idea of the evil is to everything in MacBeth’s life, as, for example, they enhance the often badly handled “dagger I see before me” speech in a way both literal and spooky. Standout in all of this is El Gamal’s truly creepy androgynous servant, who can make one’s skin crawl as a complicit voice of doom.

Carpenter’s use of ghosts – not just that of Banquo, but the gradually swelling host of MacBeth’s silent, observing victims – emphasizes the sense of doom, and underscores the madness of the storyline. It’s a great concept.

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The witches, with puppet enhancements [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Their otherworldliness as witches is aided by Sean T Cawelti’s fascinatingly simple, yet creepy bits of puppetry. Susan Gratch’s facile platform of a set and evocative lighting set the tone of dark portents. Jenny Foldenouer’s fanciful costuming allows both the swift-change aspects of the witch characters and the quick definition of everyone else.

In short, from the consistency of tone to the layered portraits to the clever and facile use of witches, this “MacBeth” is a treat. By paring down the often overwhelming volume of persons onstage, the central characters stand out more brightly, and the point is more effectively made. In short, it’s a finely crafted production worthy of sold-out audiences, and a true pleasure for a longtime Shakespeare aficionado such as myself.

What: “MacBeth” When: in repertory, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 22, 8 p.m. April 22, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 12, 7:30 p.m. April 24, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. April 27, 2 p.m and 8 p.m. May 3, 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 11 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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