Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Robertson Dean

Challenging, Funny and Local: “Six Characters” Invades A Noise Within

The Six Characters: Rafael Goldstein (The Son, in the ridiculed bowler hat), Geoff Elliott (The Father), Rigel Blue Pierce-English (The Young Daughter), Abby Craden (The Mother), Jack Elliott (The Young Son), and Alison Elliott (The Stepdaughter). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The Six Characters: Rafael Goldstein (The Son, in the ridiculed bowler hat), Geoff Elliott (The Father), Rigel Blue Pierce-English (The Young Daughter), Abby Craden (The Mother), Jack Elliott (The Young Son), and Alison Elliott (The Stepdaughter). [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

When Luigi Pirandello’s classic “Six Characters in Search of an Author” premiered in Rome in 1921, it became – despite audience protest – a hallmark of the absurdist form. The central question of what is more real, the actors who prepare to play characters, or the characters the playwright has written (particularly if he has then abandoned them to an unfinished storyline) pulls us away from the reality of daily life, just as absurdism should. What might it be like to be only as alive as a writer has made you? To be stuck in the midst of heart wrenching drama with no other options and no resolution?

Now, as the culminating production of A Noise Within’s spring repertory, an adaptation by Robert Brustein brings this play into a self-aware localized focus. The actors preparing for a play are rehearsing in ANW’s space, they reference other local theaters and their differences, and the play they rehearse is perhaps our most ferociously American: “Our Town.” Then in walk Pirandello’s characters – a dysfunctional family abandoned in the 1920s by their author, in mid-dysfunction.

Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott have backed away from their sometimes overly “stagey” style, and created a remarkably clean, often deeply funny and deceptively realistic setting for this odd tale. This is essential in an absurdist play, to capture an audience with a sense of realism even as what is being dealt with is outside the world of common sense. The suspension of disbelief is thus immediate and the tale riveting in the best possible way. Added to this, their top notch (if a bit nepotistic) cast hits all the right notes from start to end.

Robertson Dean shines is the director, used to being in charge, who must deal with these strange beings whose lives are outside of his direction. As his cast, Susan Angelo, June Carryl and Abubakr Ali play “the actors”: themselves but not themselves, frustrated by rehearsal, fascinated by their intruders, and caught up in the web of storyline none of the “real” people can predict.

As for the intrusive characters, Geoff Elliott, as the father of the group, leads the way with a toned down and thus realistic style which plays well against the absurdity of a man who by rights should only exist in print holding conversations with actors whose job would be to play people like him. As his distant and disaffected son, Rafael Goldstein creates an absence of space within himself – a desire not to be present in a story he cannot escape. Likewise Alison Elliott gives the demoralized, bitter daughter an innate sensuality at once disturbing and illuminating.

Abby Craden gives the desperately miserable mother an almost 2-dimensional gray tone – a great sign of an unfinished character. Likewise, though it is explained away briefly, Jack Elliott and Rigel Blue Pierce-English, as the two youngest children, remain silent in innocence and sorrow throughout. Natalie Reiko becomes Dean’s foil, detail-oriented as the frustrated stage manager of the ANW production in rehearsal, while Carina Haller, Marcos J. Ruiz, and Kathryn Ventress create the various peripheral stage hands, etc., who people any rehearsal space.

All these folks work together to create in “Six Characters” highly recognizable truths even as the entire concept has a note of the ridiculous. And the tragedies, when they unfold, as it appears they have over and over again, prove more touching than one might expect. In short, the entire proceeding proves captivating and – perhaps more importantly – understandable. The 90-minute play, which is done without an intermission, feels surprisingly short yet elementally satisfying. This is what comes of a production at the hands of people who really understand the roots of material some see as odd… and at the same time are refreshingly self-aware enough to make fun of themselves.

“Six Characters” plays in repertory with a contemporary “Romeo and Juliet” and the Bernard Shaw classic, “You Never Can Tell.”

What: “Six Characters in Search of an Author” When: Through May 14, 7 p.m. May 1, 7:30 p.m. April 21, 8 p.m. April 16 and 22, May 7, 13 and 14, with 2 p.m. matinees April 16, May 1, 7 and 14 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $44, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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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

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

Fine Performances Highlight ANW’s “Julius Caesar”

 Freddy Douglas (Cassius) and Robertson Dean (Brutus) join the other conspirators in "Julius Caesar" [Photo: Craig Schwartz]


Freddy Douglas (Cassius) and Robertson Dean (Brutus) join the other conspirators in “Julius Caesar” [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The third segment in A Noise Within’s spring repertory, a new rendition of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” offers up a production extremely strong on performance, innovatively timeless in setting, and powerful in final feel. If, in the process, it has a bit of a rough – or internally derivative – start, the net result outweighs the awkward beginning.

Directors love to toy with “Julius Caesar.” Its setting has proved surprisingly malleable, and has been reset everywhere from Mussolini’s Italy to JFK’s Washington. Some directors wallow in its bloodiness. Some revel in the political discourse. Some underscore the internal wrestles of people like Brutus or Mark Antony, or even Cassius. Most do some combination of the above.

At ANW, co-directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott have chosen to at least begin the piece in an otherworldly, Brechtian way (not surprising in a repertory season also featuring a Brecht-Weill musical), but seem to abandon this somewhat as the tale unfolds. So cast members come up – as they do in the Elliotts’ other spring production, all speaking their important lines at once, don costumes hanging on stage, and then – in true Brecht fashion – hold up cardboard signs proclaiming what part they are playing. Then, things get serious, and except for continuing to use painters’ scaffolding as the set’s skeleton, we move into a separate arena.

And what an arena! What makes this production work is a series of individually impressive performances which mesh in exciting ways. Robertson Dean gives Brutus both the simple faith and anguished legacy which ground his political fortunes, making him far more three-dimensional than he is often played. Rafael Goldstein turns Mark Antony into a ferociously righteous wolf, initially mistaken as boyish in this intense power struggle. Patrick O’Connell gives Caesar himself an innate nobility which makes one question the ambitions read into him more than one usually does.

Still, the most fascinating role proves to be Freddy Douglas’ Cassius. Here he becomes a true, devout and unalterable revolutionary: the kind of man who fights not just on principle, but because he aims to preserve a belief (in this case, in the preservation of the Roman Republic) which is the definition of his entire world.

All these fine men are surrounded with a solid supporting cast. In something as intricate as the political discussions of “Julius Caesar,” it is essential that all involved not only speak Shakespearean language as if it was native to them, but truly understand – with depth – what they are talking about. They become the translators for the general public, and here that is exactly what happens. Each person fits into their part or, in this case, parts (as the rest of the company each fill several roles), not only defining them as separate individuals but giving each a distinct understanding of the surrounding upheaval.

So, in the end this is what one remembers from this “Caeser”, as the thing becomes a play of passions, and an examination of how differing passions can lead people to clash even as both can be seen (at least in hindsight) to have been right. One must mention Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes, which work hard to make almost all characters look essentially the same, in drapery deeply reminiscent of clerical cassocks. One gets the point, but the audience must strain sometimes to keep the people straight. Good thing she gives them differing colored scarves by the end, so at least we can tell which side those with multiple parts are on at that moment.

So, go check out A Noise Within’s “Julius Caesar.” It plays in repertory with Charles Morey’s very funny adaptation of the Beaumarchais farce, “Figaro,” and the aforementioned Brecht-Weill “The Threepenny Opera.” Each has a distinct feel, and each will – on a certain level – leave a bit of disquiet in their wakes.

What: “Julius Caesar” When: Through May 8; 2 p.m. matinees April 11, 25 and 26, and May 3; 7 p.m. April 12 and 26; 7:30 p.m. April 16 and May 7; 8 p.m. April 17 and 18, and May 2 and 8 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, student rush $20 Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

Illuminating Silliness: “The Guardsman” woos at A Noise Within

Elyse Mirto and the disguised Freddy Douglas in The Guardsman [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Elyse Mirto and the disguised Freddy Douglas in The Guardsman [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The Hungarian-born playwright Ferenc Molnar had an eye for human frailty. Even at his most comic, as in “The Guardsman,” there is an underlying framework of what seems almost a pity for the foibles of mankind. Still, that doesn’t mean that “The Guardsman” isn’t also very funny, if well played.

Now in repertory at A Noise Within, Molnar’s “Guardsman” aims for the silliness of it all. As many of his day did, Molnar makes ferocious fun of famous actors, in this case by playing them off each other. They are naturally narcissistic. Everything about their lives is artificial. How could they possibly search for genuine emotion, or even recognize it if it appeared?

Freddy Douglas is The Actor, a well-known performer married to an actress delighted by the adoration of her fans. As their initially wild passion has faded into domesticity, he becomes convinced his wife is cheating on him, and so he decides to test her. He woos her, first with letters and finally in costume and make-up, as a military officer – a guardsman – to see if she will succumb to the charms of another.

Douglas plays his character delightfully over the top, and yet with an undercurrent of elemental insecurity. His portrait of the guardsman, as obvious and ridiculous as it is, still vibrates with a kind of desperate hope. Against him, Elyse Mirto has a lovely time as the sweepingly commanding Actress. Bearing always an aura of command, she sweeps through rooms like a force of nature. Are the arguments of these two a chance to make a scene, or are they genuine? Is the actress fooled by her husband’s ruse, or is she playing him as she does the piano?

Director Michael Michetti finds the balance necessary to make this production work – allowing the overly-dramatic sweeps of feeling, while keeping the humanity of his overblown characters consistently on the actor’s minds. With this, the play turns, not into farce, but into a more grounded comedy. If that sometimes make the laughs somewhat smaller, the net result is worth it.

Aiding in the wild world the central characters inhabit are a fine collection of supporting players. Wendy Worthington proves practical and protective as the peasant dresser The Actress has hired to act as her mother on a daily basis. Sasha Pasternak becomes the overwhelmed innocent as their newest maid – overwhelmed by the sheer emotion flowing through the house. Todd Andrew Ball makes very funny work of the creditor always being put off by a couple delightedly living beyond their means, and Judy Durning has a brief but likable turn as the usher controlling access to The Actress’ box at the opera.

Yet, it is Robertson Dean who gets handed the role most to be envied: the one voicing Molnar’s own commentaries, as the practical theater critic who has known the couple on and offstage for many years. As the one character grounded in reality, he proves the only one able to step into and out of the hyper-emotional world the others inhabit, and – as played by Dean – provides an innate steadiness which keeps righting the ship before it founders completely.

In short, “The Guardsman” was never intended to be deep, but by playing it for meaning as well as for farce, it becomes something more than sheer silliness. As such, it offers fun and just a tiny bit of introspection, mystery with just a small gut-level feeling of recognition. It’s not a bad thing to get some thought with your laughter, even in a play this silly.

What: “The Guardsman” When: in repertory through November 30: 8 p.m. November 1, 2, 15, 16, and 30, 2 p.m. November 2, 10, and 30, 7 p.m. November 10, and 7:30 p.m. November 21 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: single tickets from $34 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

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