Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Jean Giraudoux’s classic play “The Madwoman of Chaillot” is one of those plays everyone should see at some point in life. Though written in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of France, and only performed after the playwright’s death, it is often associated with a celebration of the end of tyranny. The play was actually written in 1943, during that occupation, and the overtones of absurdism it contains allow for it to say much more than just the idea of France triumphant. The production now open at A Noise Within allows for these larger interpretations.
The rather fantastical tale follows the workings of Countess Aurelia, whose eccentricities all center around her sense of community in the section of Paris known as Chaillot. In the inn she frequents, she overhears financiers and prospectors plotting to tear up the Chaillot in a quest for oil, and begins to develop ways to both remove them and others who would, for profit, be so disrespectful to the good of their own community. Helped by an odd assortment of friends, including those busily arguing long-dead causes of one kind and another, she finds help and hope from a younger generation who begin to share in her dreams.
Deborah Strang floats through the play as the Countess, as a spirit lightly out of touch with the now but deeply concerned with what lasts in the world. That sense of wishful fantasy embraced in tones of solid reason allows the play expand to as it does. Rafael Goldstein, as the tormented young man she scoops into her sphere, gently becomes the play’s sense of hope, aided by Leslie Lank’s charmingly unaware waitress.
As the villains of the piece, Apollo Dukakis, Wesley Mann and Armin Shimerman, as the Baron, President, and Prospector respectively, radiate the self-regard and profit-mongering that embodies everything a lover of beauty like the Countess would abhor. Other standouts include Veralyn Jones in the dual roles of a compassionate man of science (a doctor) and one of the Countess’ cohort of imaginative “madwomen”, Jay Lee as the observant deaf mute, and Richy Storrs as the street singer whose attempts to make music in the midst of upheaval prove particularly charming.
Director Stephanie Shroyer keeps the characters engaging and the pace – easily dragged down by long speeches – moving in such a way as to keep the audience engaged. The open set by Angela Balogh Calin provides many spaces in one, which also helps, and the occasional snips of classical music in Jeff Gardner’s sound design become fascinating in their own right – especially the use of pieces written by Soviet composers to underscore the presence of various nefarious persons marching toward their collective doom. Interesting subtext comes with that, since one rarely associates Soviet principles with corporate avarice.
As I said at the start, “The Madwoman of Chaillot” has become one of those plays everyone who aspires to being literate should see at some point, and this is a sound production at which to do so. What proves particularly fascinating, however, is how well the play in all its fantasy speaks to a modern age. The evil to be defeated is corporate greed. The way that greed manifests is in the destruction of an environment for fossil fuel. Interesting how little that particular story has changed in the intervening years.
What: “The Madwoman of Chaillot” When: Through November 11, 7:00 p.m. October 1 and November 5, 7:30 p.m. October 26, 8 p.m. October 20, 21, 27 and November 11, with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 21, and November 5 and 11 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25 Info: (626) 356-3100 or anoisewithin.org
When I first saw Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the Mark Taper Forum many years ago, I was stunned at its power, and said so in print. I was startled at the mixed reaction I got to that review from people who had seen the show as well, and who usually had the interest in arts that I did. The same thing happened the next time I reviewed a Stoppard play. Thus, let me say from the start that Stoppard’s work is for those who enjoy mental and emotional rigor, and “Arcadia,” now enjoying a finely polished production at A Noise Within, is no exception. If you don’t want to do that kind of work while sitting in an audience, you may find it disappointing.
If you do, you will find this production, and this work, an absolute treasure. As the play explores the meaning of truth, and of genius, it raises questions about everything from morality, to the universe, to the nature and purpose of science and of scholarship. It does so with feet firmly in two very different time periods at once, peopled with characters ranging from fascinating to ridiculous to endearing, and in language which is the kind of spoken poetry great playwrights use.
The story revolves around a single English country estate, seen both in the early 19th Century and present day. There, in a sunny formal room, a historian’s modern research into the evolution of the formal gardens is interrupted by a pop-academician interested in gaining enough information to achieve quick fame. The current residents of the house, descended from those in the past period, include those who echo the skills, temperaments and occasional genius of their antique forebears.
Alternating with these scenes, one is introduced to those forebears, and to the actual events, personalities and talents which the moderns are trying to parse from the few remaining bits of documentary evidence. By the end, in a moment reminiscent of Einstein’s contention that “the distinction between past, present and future is a stubbornly persistent illusion”, both time periods are running in the same room at the same time, moving forward as inexorably as a mathematical formula.
Foundational to this tale is the interaction between the 19th Century tutor at this estate, and the brilliant daughter he is there to teach. Rafael Goldstein as Septimus, the tutor and a former school friend of Lord Byron, balances the man’s scholarly intellect and articulate sensuality in ways which provide much of the glue for the rest of the antique tale. As his student, Thomasina, whom we first see at age 13 and later just before her 18th birthday, Erika Soto vibrates with curiosity and an innate wisdom, and her character’s passionate interest in what mathematics can tell one about the universe.
Balanced against these antique figures are Susan Angelo as the controlled and scholarly Hannah, a researcher looking for answers to a series of mysteries about the house and gardens as a follow-up to a recently published book. Her arguments for proof and scholarship even as she has her own suppositions gains legs when Bernard, given a slightly over-the-top egoism by Freddy Douglas, appears to scoop up what he can in a hurry and write a lecture he hopes will gain him a moment of limelight.
In between them is Valentine, played with a kind of internal fire by Tavis Doucette. The eldest son of the owners of the house, he has been culling old household accounts for information to fit into computerized equations for a study foundational to his graduate degree, and the vagaries and gut instincts of historical research are “noise” to his view of facts. Jill Renner is there as his rather vapid sister Chloe, while Richy Storrs does double-duty not only as their non-speaking but musically talented brother, and as Thomasina’s egotistical sibling as well.
Abby Craden, as the rather officious and flirtatious Lady Croom, commands the more antique household, joined sometimes by Stephen Weingartner as her pompous military brother. Eric Curtis Johnson handles the duality of a highly regarded professional landscape architect who is still essentially Lady Croom’s servant, while Mitchell Edmonds performs the duties of the patient butler with style. As one of the most humorous characters in the enterprise, Jeremy Rabb’s nervously ambitious yet ostensibly awful poet gives face to a man totally misunderstood by those researching him roughly 200 years on.
Under the comparatively understated direction of Geoff Elliott the piece has a flow and a subtle choreography which allow the necessarily episodic nature of the thing to feel a sense of unity. Leah Piehl’s accurate costuming for the period portion, and inaccurate pieces for use in the modern dress-up segment, show subtle character notes, and underscore some of the play’s points. Frederica Nascimento’s gorgeously understated Georgian hall allows for light to become its own character, while Robert Oriol’s sound design underscores the explosive nature of the playwright’s words.
In short, this production of “Arcadia” fills the eyes and the mind. Likable, or even humorously unlikable characters carry one through a dizzying array of conversations one may need to take a while to chew over afterward. Yet, that work is worth it. The richness continues to unfold. The play will be performed in rotating repertory with Jean Genet’s “The Maids” and Moliere’s “The Imaginary Invalid”, all marking the 25th season of ANW.
What: “Arcadia” When: In rotating repertory through November 20, 8 p.m. September 30, October 1, November 5, 8 and 11; 7:30 p.m. October 20 and November 10; 7 p.m. October 30 and November 20; with 2 p.m. matinees October 1 and 30, and November 5 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $44 general, student rush with ID $20 an hour before the performance Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
I confess. I love the plays of George Bernard Shaw. When well done, even the most prosy of them can be a fun, and his best work shines with a kind of internal delight, as his objective of entertaining while saying something societally important proves a success. Such a play, and such a production is the newly opened “You Never Can Tell” at A Noise Within. Gifted with virtually perfect casting, the intelligent and lively direction of Stephanie Shroyer, and solid visuals, it just works. And when Shaw works, you’re in for a treat.
To be frank, the play is one of Shaw’s better discussions of “the modern woman,” circa 1897: tackling their right to independent thought, the assumption of male supremacy in marriage, and the ability of forward thinkers to fit into British society. That some of its essential themes are still relevant today proves why such plays are still staples of English-speaking theater.
Deborah Strang is Mrs. Clandon, a writer famed for books on “The 20th Century Woman” who has returned with her young adult children from Madeira to a local British seaside resort. Strang gives her character that kind of inborn confidence which makes her sure she knows not only what is good for women in general, but for her own children: older daughter Gloria and somewhat younger twins Dolly and Philip. Whether they, especially Gloria, can live up to those expectations, or even want to in the end, is another matter of course.
Richy Storrs and Erika Soto are a hoot as the twins, completely unable to hold their tongues on any subject, ferociously curious and absolutely untamable. Jill Renner gives Gloria a wonderful combination of staunchness and indecision, as she gradually falls for a penniless dentist with comparatively old fashioned ideas she reaches to challenge. Jeremy Rabb, as Mrs. Clandon’s old friend and solicitor personifies the staid narrow-mindedness of the matured free thinker, while Apollo Dukakis finds great humor in the sour old man who is both the dentist’s landlord and Mrs. Clandon’s abandoned husband.
Still, the best performances of this splendid company have to be Kasey Mahaffy, complete in tone and body language as the very Shavian dentist – swayed by passions, yet convinced he understands women, and Wesley Mann as the tolerant and intensely observant waiter who cares for the Clandons at their hotel. Also worthy of note in a brief but delightfully “deus ex machina” role is Freddy Douglas as the waiter’s barrister son.
Yet to list the individual performers and their fine work is only the half of it. The sense of ensemble is palpable. The timing is right on point throughout. The cleverness of the direction extends even to a needed shift in Don Llewellyn’s elaborate and very three-dimensional set, which becomes almost a character during the move. Angela Balogh Calin gives the costuming a solid polish, and in general the atmosphere places the play in just the right point in time.
“You Never Can Tell” is intelligent, and very funny. Though Shaw’s focus is on the artificial and damaging understanding of women as a lesser sex, he couches the whole thing as almost a farce – a terrific spoonful of sugar for his more serious message. The result is a production well worth seeing. “You Never Can Tell” plays in repertory with “Romeo and Juliet” and soon with “6 Characters in Search of an Author.”
What: “You Never Can Tell” When: Through May 15, 7 p.m. March 20, April 24 and May 15, 7:30 p.m. April 14 and May 5, 8 p.m. April 9 and 30, with 2 p.m. matinees March 20, April 9, 24 and 30 and May 15 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $44, with student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org