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Moliere At His Best: A Noise Within charms with “The Bungler”

JD Cullum as the devious Mascarille and Michael A. Newcomber as the inept Lelie with the cast of "The Bungler" (photo: Craig Swartz)

Few men have had their finger on the pulse of their own time period like Moliere. He made social comedy into an art form, managing to touch on class issues of his own day while creating characters whose foibles prove so human they are still very accessible today. Still, some of Moliere’s comedies are produced more often than others. There is a particular excitement for those who, like me, have experienced multiple productions of “Tartuffe,” “The Imaginary Invalid,” or “The Misanthrope” to discover there may still be a surprise – an unknown treasure to be unearthed on occasion.

Indeed, I have just found one. After seeing “The Bungler” at A Noise Within, I cannot help wonder why it is not one of the more commonly done of Moliere’s work. Graced with comic plot worthy of Abbott and Costello, the silly elegance of an overdressed era, and that universal sympathy for a cheerful scoundrel, it charms from beginning to end, with more than a few genuine belly laughs along the way.

Much of this is due, of course, to the stellar performances of two individuals. JD Cullum engages at every level as the frustrated valet Mascarille. Wily and devious, Mascarille has been pushed by his master, Lelie, to maneuver the beautiful gypsy woman held in bondage by a neighbor into Lelie’s arms. It would seem a rather standard sort of “cunning servant” play. The difference here is Lelie, played as unflappably vapid by Michael A. Newcomer. Trying to be helpful, Lelie manages to thwart his own interests over and over again, pushing Mascarille into ever more outlandish attempts to achieve his goal.

Both Cullum and Newcomer are brilliant – the one radiating energetic intelligence balanced beautifully the other’s blank-but-earnest placidity. Supporting them is an equally impressive cast.

William Dennis Hunt grounds the story as the penurious owner of Lelie’s obsession. As the obsession, Emily Kosloski provides the kind of porcelain beauty one usually finds on Dresden shepherdesses, and most of what she gets to do is be beautiful. Kate Maher, as the woman Lelie is supposed to marry, settles into an interesting air increasing practicality as the insanity around her becomes more and more transparent, rather than just playing a pawn. Stephen Rockwell makes somewhat bemused work of her father.

Mitchell Edmonds operates with a pleasant cluelessness as Lelie’s somewhat impoverished, but cheerful father. Kevin Stidham’s standard young man makes an attractive alternative for Lelie’s fiance. Rafael Goldstein proves earnestly confidential as Mascarille’s informative friend, and Amin El Gamal radiates a kind of creepy warmth as the mysterious Andres. Kabin Thomas and Claire Marie Mannle round out the cast.

Director, and ANW Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliot has chosen to weave this baroque comedy with aspects of commedia dell’arte, utilizing the masks, music and dance as segues for and punctuation to the production. This general concept of a play within a play makes the thing flow with a lighthearted ease, with just a little aura of the sinister. It all works.

“The Bungler,” in the end, is far from a bungle. It is laugh-out-loud funny, as much due to direction and quality of acting as to Moliere. To be surprised by something around since the time of Louis XIV has its own enjoyment, and is in its way the best proof of the essential artistry of theater, even comic theater, to speak to the human condition. Go if you can. You’ll be glad you did.

What: “The Bungler” When: Through May 27 in repertory with two other plays, 8 p.m. selected Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. selected Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

Theatre Movement Bazaar and Theatre at Boston Court dance with Chekhov in “The Treatment”

Hospital bureaucracy faces down its demoralized chief in The Theatre at Boston Court and Theatre Movement Bazaar production of "The Treatment"

Note: Apologies for the late posting of this review, due to medical issues.

Playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov must rank with some observers as among the most misunderstood authors in the canon of great playwrights. In his own time the plays he wrote as send-ups of the futile obsessions of human nature – especially aiming at the Russian landed class – were produced by the great Constantin Stanislavski to great success, but as if they were Greek tragedies. Companies elsewhere followed suit, and only in the past half century has his work often appeared as the satire it is.

His even more satiric, meanderingly brilliant short stories divided critics in their own time, seen as either brilliant or lazy, their bleak, wry humor ahead of its time. Yet, from this stream of consciousness style come the first blushes of absurdism, especially in those short stories.

All of which makes the production of “The Treatment” currently at The Theatre at Boston Court a logical progression. Adapted by Richard Alger from the Chekhov short story “Ward 6,” and directed/choreographed by Tina Kronis, this joint production by Boston Court and Alger/Kronis’ Theatre Movement Bazaar highlights the absurdity in both the tale and the telling.

Theatre Movement Bazaar bends the boundaries between traditional theater and performance art, using choreographed movements to emphasize themes of synchronicity, abandonment or individualism in the characters portrayed. A cluster of low level bureaucrats move as one, like a Greek chorus. A man of habit moves with a rhythmic beat underscoring the sameness of his days. Even the gender of the players becomes secondary to the story, and a small cast creates the larger framework for the tale being told by whipping in and out of costumes and attitudes as needs present.

The story examines the downfall of Dr. Ragin, a once-fine healer assigned to and beaten down by the role of Chief of Staff of an obscure government hospital. There his attempts to improve care have encountered such resistance he no longer bothers to appear at most meetings, or do much in the way of rounds, confirmed in his feeling that he can do no good there anyway. Then he meets Gromov, an occupant of the hospital psych ward. Desperate for intellectual conversation, he becomes fascinated by Gromov’s educated but twisted view of the world, and begins to unravel.

Mark Doerr makes the doomed Ragin personable, precise and deeply needy. As his deputy, and the consummately detached bureaucrat, Nich Kauffman provides the cold table upon which Ragin’s character is dissected. Mark Skeens manages articulate madness as Gromov, and along with an ensemble of Jake Eberle, Matt Shea and Jacob Sidney, creates all the many characters which people this terrible, intimate, fascinating telling of the ironic Chekhovian tale.

Ellen McCartney’s flexibly period costuming allows for quick partial changes and sudden shifts in tone. Jeff Webster’s scenic design creates a constant flow by virtue of fascinating movable panels. The movement of these becomes part of the choreography in a play where motion speaks as much as words. The entire piece is done without an intermission, which makes sense in that one should not interrupt what is essentially one long, fluid movement.

“The Treatment” is innovative theater, but then that’s what both companies involved with this production are all about. It’s a chance to encounter less-well-known Chekhov, which for me is always a singular delight. More than that, images from this piece will hum in your head afterward, as great storytelling always does, allowing the nuances in the cracks between sentences to shine ever more brightly. This is, by definition, the kind of thing theater can do which no other medium can match.

What: “The Treatment” When: Through March 25, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and Wednesday, March 21; 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 student/senior Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com

A Noise Within Takes “Antony and Cleopatra” for a Spin

Note: Apologies for the late posting of this review, due to medical issues.

Susan Angelo and Geoff Elliott let Cleopatra and Antony get carried away.(PHOTO CREDIT:Craig Schwartz)


One of the joys of live Shakespeare is its variety. The Bard wrote characters with nuances people have been exploring for centuries, and placed them in settings which can be treated literally or figuratively. Directors and actors can let their creativity run amok, giving new insights to 400-year-old words.

Which makes A Noise Within’s new “Antony and Cleopatra” particularly worth watching. Directed by Artistic Co-Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, and starring Elliott, this version becomes less the great romantic tragedy often portrayed, and more the story of a weak-willed whiner who falls for a manipulative and hedonistic foreign queen. The loyalties they trifle with, and the devastation they invite become far more interesting, or frustrating, than simple star-crossed romance. Still, some will miss a nobler spin.

Elliott’s Antony is besotted and,while swept up in passion and overconfidence, makes decision after decision which cannot help but disturb his fellow Triumvirs – the Romans running the post-Julius Caesar world. He plays politics extraordinarily badly, and expects a loyalty from his followers he rarely gives any foundation. Through it all, Elliott’s Antony weeps and bemoans his lot in ways which trumpet his essential weakness so intensely one wonders he has any supporters left.

Susan Angelo gives Cleopatra a disproportionate sense of her own majesty – commanding and spoiled. She assumes her power over and manipulation of Antony will keep her safe, and her shock at her own downfall is as much about the sudden realization of powerlessness as it is a confirmation of romantic fatalism. This is a woman who must be in control, and cannot stand the concept of losing.

Backing these title figures, Max Rosenak makes Octavius Caesar strong, youthfully ambitious and driven to lead. Christian Rummel’s Pompey looks a bit much like a refugee from “Pirates of the Caribbean”, but makes an emotionally stark contrast to the orderly Roman sensibilities of his enemies. Jill Hill, Diana Gonzalez-Morett and Amin El Gamal make interesting work of Cleopatra’s handmaids and personal eunuch, while Roberson Dean, as Antony’s right hand man, displays all the nobility his master lacks.

Costumer Angela Balogh Calin gives a decent impression of Roman military and civilian garb (though some of the armor doesn’t fit very well) and of the comparatively diaphanous clothing of the Egyptian nobility. Only those piratical followers of Pompey give one pause. Tom Buderwitz’s simple but brilliant scenic design allows a multi-level use of the theatrical space subtly evocative of a classic Shakespearean stage.

In the long run, it is almost refreshing to see Antony not as a betrayed but essentially heroic figure, but as a man impressively unfit for leadership. The play is long, but the ANW’s new theater seats are comfortable. Sit back and enjoy this very classic, rather sumptuous riff on history – not particularly historically accurate, but filled with entertaining drama. The “character map” in the program will be a welcome help to the uninitiated.

What: “Antony and Cleopatra” When: through May 13, in repertory with two other plays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1, or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

Fatal Attractions: Desire Under the Elms at A Noise Within

Monette Magrath and Jason Dechert in A Noise Within's "Desire Under the Elms"


A Noise Within, in its new performance space in Pasadena, has returned to its traditional status as a repertory theater. This weekend it began offering a second show to run concurrently with the “Twelfth Night” which opened the season. The contrast is instant and obvious. Though “Twelfth Night” was overly concept-driven, putting florid flourishes on a play to the point of dulling its original luster, this new exploration of Eugene O’Neill’s minor masterpiece “Desire Under the Elms” lets the characters become the play’s force. Interlaced in director D’amaso Rodriguez’s vision of setting and pace, the show becomes a cohesive whole, and a compelling one.

A portrait of struggle on many levels the play introduces Ephraim Cabot, the hard, aging taskmaster father who has driven two wives to their graves, and three sons into deep and powerful resentment. In his fullness of days he has taken another wife – a young widow desperate to own something and belong somewhere. Two sons desert him for California and a third, who dreams of owning the farm, remains behind. Thus begins a struggle of hearts, as Ephraim’s harshness bumps up against his new wife Abby’s grasping and his son Eben’s aching passions. Ephraim’s self-focus and determined loneliness doom them all.

In some ways the setting is almost a character. The cast’s upper New England accents, and the starkly beautiful world they see from John Iacovelli’s stark and transparent farmhouse define the world in which this wrenching drama unfolds.

William Dennis Hunt’s Ephraim looks like he stepped out of a daguerreotype, and though he plays it all in a pacing and huffing key, the part works as the rock upon which the rest of the story layers. Jason Dechert’s soft and aching Eben contrasts viscerally with Hunt’s toughness. Monette Magrath does well walking the tightrope between making Abby too calculating and not calculating enough, leading to some interesting, if debatable, interpretations of her shift in interest from father to son.

Still, between pacing and sense of ensemble rhythm, this “Desire Under the Elms” proves compelling watching. Even those in smaller parts, particularly Stephen Rockwell and Christopher Fairbanks as Eben’s two cloddish elder brothers heading for the California gold fields, fit in with the rhythm and atmosphere with a deceptive effortlessness.

On a more mundane key, and also in contrast to ANW’s “Twelfth Night,” this language-rich production proves satisfying in that you can hear every word. And here words matter, set in a culture which measured every sentence for economy as they did feed for the stock.

This “Desire Under the Elms” is a good chance to meet one of the finer plays by one of the great playwrights of the 20th century. Before him, we were a provincial theatrical place at best. He brought American theater seriousness, and an undercurrent of Greek tragedy, which Miller and Williams and others would build upon in their turns. As with the Greeks, the flaws of human interaction are inevitable and deadly. Yet, in O’Neill, we find our own roots intertwined with those fatal flaws. It’s an uncomfortable mirror, but an engrossing one.

What: “Desire Under the Elms” When: Through December 18, on selected nights in repertory with “Twelfth Night,” 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 W. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

A Noise Within is at home with “Twelfth Night”

Geoff Elliott as the unlovely Malvolio

A new theater in any form – as in “a building built to be a theatrical space” rather than a repurposed storefront, warehouse, or basement – is a rare bird in this era, whether or not it can brag of being state of the art. So, it goes without saying that there is much joy in the opening of A Noise Within’s grand new, technically splashy home in Pasadena.

A Noise Within, Pasadena

In the end, however, the space is only as good as what goes on inside it. This becomes A Noise Within’s task: to provide the same kind of classical theater excellence in this ritzy building that they aimed for when operating on a comparative shoestring. The first shot at this goal comes with their first Pasadena offering: Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” set in pre-Castro Cuba.

The results are mixed. The thing looks terrific, and some of the performances shine. Others are rather more mundane. Still, it does show off to fine effect what this new building can do.

Two elements must be present for a good “Twelfth Night.” First, in telling the central tale of a girl whose romantic complications come from her necessary disguise as a boy, there must be a certain amount of magnetism, both between Viola the woman and Duke Orsino, and between the passionate Olivia and Viola disguised as Cesario. Second, the tale of the pompous servant Malvolio and the humiliating practical joke played upon him by Olivia’s lesser relatives and servants mustn’t devolve into too much pathos.

In this production, one need have no worry about that latter issue. Geoff Elliott makes Malvolio so snippy, moralistic and dour that his downfall seems well earned. Apollo Dukakis’ continuously drunken Sir Toby Belch, Jeremy Rabb’s incessantly whiney Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Deborah Strang’s infuriated maid, Maria, work well as a team and give a sense of righteous payback which makes the humor of this element work as it should.

On the other hand, it takes time for the Viola’s romantic entanglements, welcome or otherwise, to attain any heat. Angela Gulner makes fine work of the man-woman role, becoming a mildly convincing man while never letting the audience forget her true leanings. Abby Craden has a ball with the florid Olivia, making her mercurial enough to account for her swift changes of heart. Roberston Dean’s noble duke takes a while to warm to the stage, at first speaking too softly and then too often upstage. There are missed opportunities for connection along the way, the lack of flair between him and his Cesario offering little to build on.

Even so, the whole thing looks fabulous, from Kurt Boetcher’s minimal set (those palm trees are particularly wonderful in concept and design), to Angela Balogh Calin’s bright, culturally correct, vibrantly period costumes. Everyone on the technical side is having fun playing with the new capacities of this theater.

Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott choreographs the movements upon this stage with confidence, if not pizzazz, using the setting merely as backdrop. In this Cuba one finds great, sensual music to dance to, palms, beaches, and machetes to don in place of swords. And, of course, Cuba is an island (a prerequisite) and its romanticism is a balance to the original Italianate setting. Actual Cuban culture gets a nod mostly through the use of cigars and rum.

In sum, one will find a trip to the new A Noise Within an adventure. The pleasant, and sometimes quite clever “Twelfth Night” bodes well for the company’s future in this new space. With this new venue added to the ones already available, both venerable and otherwise, a theatergoer can get a remarkable education in the medium all in one city.

What: “Twelfth Night” When: Through December 16 in repertory, 8 p.m. selected Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. selected Sundays, with matinees 2 p.m. selected Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

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