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A Polished Twist: Shakespeare’s Star-crossed Lovers at ANW

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes are ANW's Romeo and Juliet

Will Bradley and Donnla Hughes are ANW’s Romeo and Juliet

One of the pleasures (or, if you are a purist, one of the annoyances) of modern Shakespearean productions is the license directors feel to move the setting, time period and circumstances of the characters to a more recognizable – or more symbolic – space. Sometimes such a shift becomes legendary (one thinks of the Orson Welles’ “Julius Caesar” of the 1930s, set in Mussolini’s Italy). Sometimes it can enhance a sense of connection with the material. Sometimes it isn’t quite as successful.

Take as example the intense “Romeo and Juliet” at A Noise Within. There, director D’amaso Rodriguez has amassed an impressive cast, and brought the story out of the halls of wealthy Verona into the sleazy back streets of a Mob-dominated world. To some extent, this works well, right down to Romeo’s initial resemblance to Banksy, but between an overly busy set and the break-neck speed of line delivery, some of the poetics get lost in the translation.

No denying the show’s intensity. That’s a good thing. And the words are there: with rare exceptions, Rodriguez avoids the slashed script which so often is used to woo modern audiences to the antique language. The use of doubling or even tripling among the lesser characters also works well, creating a focus on the protagonists while keeping the crowd onstage at a reasonable size. Indeed, Shakespeare did the same.

But, particularly in the early stages of the play, those words are spoken at such speed that if you don’t already have the show nearly memorized (which I admit I do) you miss much of that lovely language because you just can’t process the words fast enough, even with the actors’ universally lovely diction. And the set, though in practical terms it works well, has been graced with so much completely random graffiti art (that is, nothing actually related to the script) that it becomes a noise distracting from the proceedings. Yet, all these issues do not mean the show isn’t worth watching or the interpretation given isn’t immediate and valid.

Will Bradley plays a somewhat stringy, intense Romeo with an impulsive, occasionally dark passion that works well in this setting. Donnla Hughes manages to carry off both the gangly awkwardness of Juliet’s barely-teen self while still finding the depths of that acid test of all Juliets, the potion scene. Indeed, her wrestling seems more organic to Juliet than is often true.

Robertson Dean, inexplicably barefoot throughout, makes a humble, annoyed, and finally desperate Friar Laurence. Rafael Goldstein, as Mercutio and Christian Barillas as Tybalt find the sweet spot in their dueling scene between enmity and boredom. This makes their deaths particularly tragic. Indeed, Goldstein’s performance romances the wit of his character, making him more central and more sympathetic than is often true.

In the dual role of the Prince and Juliet’s nurse, June Carryl creates two separately defined persons of distinctive character – severe and controlled as the Prince, fulsome and heartfelt as the nurse. Charlotte Gulezian makes a fine friend and occasional confidante as Romeo’s buddy Benvolio, Amir Abdullah gives Paris more presence and more pathos than usual, and Alan Blumenfeld as the Don-like Capulet exudes beneficent but potentially ferocious command. Jill Hill handles Lady Capulet with a style which makes her stand out more than sometimes, though the interpretation’s comparative crassness takes a bit of getting used to.

Designer Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes fit the setting impressively, and add to the unified vision of the production. Her back alley set design also works well, as Romeo ascends dumpster lids to Juliet’s window and Capulets and Montagues fight amidst the strewn trash. Only the overdone graffiti sometimes distracts.

So, in total, this “Romeo and Juliet” is largely a success. The acting is strong, the empathy clear and the tragedy palpable. Rodriguez has a sense of the humanity of the characters in anything he directs, which keeps the potential for stagey-ness at bay. For something like Shakespeare to appeal to a new age, this is absolutely key.

Young people in the audience – and there were many when I saw it – “get” this version more thoroughly than they would a doublet-and-hose production. Keeping the Bard vital to each age, and real, is elementally important, no matter how many people want to put his work in an antique box. In this, A Noise Within’s “Romeo and Juliet” proves one of their most successful recent Shakespearean ventures.

What: “Romeo and Juliet” When: In repertory through May 8, 7 p.m. April 17 and May 8, 7:30 p.m. April 7 and 28, 8 p.m. March 18 and 19, April 8, 23 and 29, with 2 p.m. matinees on March 19, April 17 and 23, and May 8. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44 general, $20 student rush one hour before performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 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

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