Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Tony-winning play

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”at ANW: Anything But Dead

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Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, oblivious to the drama of Paul David Story’s Hamlet and Katie Rodriguez’s Ophelia in the background. [photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a certain fascination in the fact that two theaters in Pasadena are featuring plays based on looking sideways at a Shakespearean works. At Boston Court, a new play looks at “The Merchant of Venice” from the Jewish perspective. At A Noise Within it’s the now-classic “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” in which two seemingly superfluous characters in “Hamlet” become the center of a debate about existence.

The latter, the seminal work of Tom Stoppard, demands a specific rhythm from its cast, as 20th century nihilism swirls around Elizabethan storytelling, and wry humor coats the original tragedy. This odd juxtaposition is the heart of why the play works so well, if it is done right. At A Noise Within, it is done right.

Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are the title characters, summoned for reasons they don’t understand to a castle full of tragic drama they are not connected to. As such, they concentrate on the vagaries of fate, the potential purposelessness of their own existences, and the simple question of what they can possibly be supposed to do regarding the unintelligible theatrics floating around them. The two create the sense of bond which makes the entire play work, and create characters of memorable quirkiness.

As the head of the troop of players who will be elemental to Hamlet’s confrontation of his uncle, though they don’t know it, Wesley Mann gives just the right tone of insular irony to the part. In this he is backed by as peculiar a crowd of performers – from the wistfully abused Alfred (Sam Christian), joined by Mark Jennings, Jonathan Fisher, Philip Rodriguez, Oscar Emmanuel Fabela – as an ANW audience could expect.

Paul David Story, as Hamlet, Jonathan Bray as his uncle Claudius, and Abby Craden as his mother Gertrude make the sudden injections of Shakespearean characters and speech seem natural segues from the contemporary discussions of the title pair. Indeed, the entire crew of Shakespeareans, by their seeming ease with the plot going on offstage, set the tone for the disconnect between that and these two hapless, somewhat dimly philosophical figures whose doom is ordained by elements outside their understanding.

Director Geoff Elliott does some of his finest work piecing this thing together into an entertaining, wistful, cohesive whole. A lot of this is pacing, and a lot of it is creating space and action for the many long and elaborate discussions between two clueless men. Costumer Jenny Foldenauer manages the historic and the fanciful equally well, while Frederica Nascimento’s set, with its seeming scrim between “Hamlet” and this play, helps signal the intersections between the two.

This “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is funny, intellectually satisfying, cleverly staged, and one of those moments when ANW tropes actually propel the sense of the thing forward. It is most certainly worth a look, especially for anyone who is a Shakespeare nut, like me.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” plays in repertory with “A Picture of Dorian Gray.”

What: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”  When: through November 18; 2 p.m. October 21 and 27, November 4, 10, 17 and 18; 7 p.m. November 4 and 18; 7:30 p.m. October 25; 8 p.m. October 26, and 27, November 9, 10, and 17  How Much: from $25 general, $20 Student Rush with ID an hour before the performance

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Extraordinary Intimacy: “The Humans” Excels at the Ahmanson

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L-R: Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills in “The Humans” at the Ahmanson Theatre [Photo: Lawrence K. Ho]

The neatest trick to accomplish, when writing an intimate play, is to find that spark which ties the issues and personalties of a few people to something inherently a part of everyone. That very concept centers Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” the Tony-winning play just opened with the entire original Broadway cast at the Ahmanson Theatre. Every single person, and virtually every single issue, has some element with which we are familiar. The problems and conflicts the characters have with each other are not on their own earth-shattering, but they are (as the playwright himself has said) the things which keep us up at night.

How these issues emerge, how they intertwine, and how these people – who essentially love each other – deal with them is the play. It is funny. It is wrenching. It leaves one with some curiosity about elements outside the frame. It is gently remarkable theater.

The Blake family has gathered for Thanksgiving at the New York apartment younger daughter Brigid is just moving into with her boyfriend Richard. Parents Eric and Deirdre come somewhat hesitantly from Scranton, bringing with them Eric’s mother – commonly referred to as Momo – who is in the later stages of Alzheimers Disease. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee, a Philadelphia lawyer wounded by the breakup of her marriage, and by illness.

The apartment is almost a character – with a ground floor portion on entry and a stair down to a basement kitchen and dining area, and some very strange upstairs neighbor whose actions create enormous booming interruptions to the family proceedings. Trash compactors roar outside the lower door. The light bulbs seem to have a life of their own. And the furniture, with a couple of exceptions, has yet to arrive. As the family readies for and eats dinner, wrestles with issues of expectation, religion, aging, traditions large and small, and the nature of love, the audience is drawn in to sit with them, and to understand what it is driving some members’ lack of sleep.

Reed Birney has a feel for Eric’s combination of taciturn, teasing but loving care, and internal wrestling with a faceless fear. As Deirdre Jayne Houdyshell embodies that mother who fusses, radiates a specific sense of humor, wants to fix everyone’s problems, and yet wrestles with secrets of her own. Sarah Steele embraces Brigid’s combination of family loyalty and resistance, making her both a determinedly individual person and one connecting the varied personalities together.

Nick Mills gives Richard the semi-attached attitude of the observer looking in on a unit he is now becoming a part of. His attempts at connection are treated with the earnestness necessary to keep him on an edge but not rejectable. It’s a subtly tricky performance. Perhaps most remarkable is the performance of Lauren Klein as Momo. Late stage Alzheimers is tough to watch in real life, and even tougher to recreate, yet she makes the mumblings and particularly the moments of rage absolutely believable.

There is a reason this play won an award while still off-Broadway for ensemble performance. It is absolutely seamless, with characters as comfortable with each other as families are. Director Joe Mantello choreographs the thing as much as directs it, using David Zinn’s two-tiered set with real finesse. The sense of family, of separation and togetherness, of tension and softening, ebb and flow as such a gathering does. A nod also to Fitz Patton’s sound design, creating as it does the character of an upstairs neighbor we essentially never even see, but whose presence proves startlingly intrusive at oddly apt moments.

“The Humans” is fine, fine theater. It speaks to all the mistakes people who love each other make, all the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves, and yet does so by being small, intimate, and very character driven. This is not splashy fun, but it Is often very funny. This is not about the world’s problems, but it echoes a humanity full of flaws even if full of potential good. Its very familiarity is its strength, and will rest with you long after the play, which is performed without intermission, is done.

What: “The Humans”  When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $130. Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

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