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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

“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

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

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

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