Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Magic transcendence (or not)

BACK HOME AGAIN from a quick trip to Portland, there to eat turkey, and another to Glendale, there to see plays.

A Noise Within, the Glendale repertory theater company spun off in the early 1990's from San Francisco's ACT (as I understand it), came to our attention in April 2001, when we saw Noel Coward's Hay Fever in a delicious production. We liked it so much we subscribed to the next season, having found we could make two four-day trips to Los Angeles, one in early December, one in April, and see the entire six-play repertory. So far we've seen
  • 2002-03: Macbeth; The Triumph of Love (Marivaux); The Cherry Orchard; Bus Stop; Measure for Measure; The King Stag (Gozzi)
  • 2003-04: Coriolanus; The Miser; The Price; Electra; Twelfth Night; The Matchmaker
  • 2004-05: A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Homecoming; A Flea in Her Ear; Julius Caesar; The School for Wives; Mourning Becomes Electra
  • 2005-06: Othello; Picnic; The Master Builder; Ubu Roi; Arms and the Man; The Tempest
  • 2006-07: Phaedra; A Touch of the Poet; As You Like It; Romeo and Juliet; Loot (Orton)

  • You'll have seen that A Noise Within produces valuable repertory and sets it in the context of interestingly themed seasons. What you'll have to take my word for is that the productions are generally well and professionally conceived and executed and the performances generally first-rate; we enjoy these trips south quite as much as our annual swings north to Portland, as far as the theater is concerned. Of the thirty-three productions we've seen at A Noise Within, perhaps three were truly "bad" — that's in quotes, because after all it's a matter of taste: others in the audience seemed to respond favorably even to those.

    What a list! To see Marivaux, Molière, Gozzi, Rameau in repertory with William Inge, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder; to see Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Beckett— all on a deep thrust stage in a former Masonic hall whose limited facilities bring out the enterprise and imagination of production crews and audiences, matching the often impassioned responses of both seasoned and tyro actors.

    In the past I've written about some of these productions in detail, here on The Eastside View and, earlier, on my website (one day perhaps I'll get around to setting these various things in order). I've stopped doing that lately, partly out of laziness, partly out of inadequacy in the face of the overwhelming number of things we do and read and visit, partly because, after all, there are so many theater reviews easily found here on the internet — just Google "Noise Within" and the title of any of these plays; you'll see.

    But I do want to sketch a response to the three plays we just saw, two exercises in magic transcendence flanking a study in the lack of same:

  • Dear Brutus (James M. Barrie): a romantic comedy in the Forest-Of-Arden tradition, where boys and girls pursue one another among the woods, coming thus to terms with (and fuller understanding of) themselves. The title refers to Julius Caesar: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

    But the play is anything but a comment on Caesar, or Cassius either for that matter, and certainly not on the conflicting concepts of imperial divinity and classless democracy: it's a drawing-room comedy opening out into a romp in the woods, literally; a depiction of the unbuttoned individuality that underlies a polite society.

    As I said, I'm not going to review it, other than to say that we were involved and entertained throughout; among the online reviews, this one isn't bad.

  • Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett): Don't need to say anything about the play — a modern classic. Andrew J. Traister makes his Noise Within debut here as a director, and I found the result gripping, hilarious, poignant by turns, and — what particularly impressed me — attentive to detail, to the fine grain, but equally to the long line. And here I will do an odd thing, refer you to a negative review, because its observations, while I disagree with their conclusion, seem much to the point.

    Waiting for Godot is a tricky play to get right: it's about waiting, about nothing happening, and that can of course be a bore. But an attempt to distract from its existentialism not only denies Beckett's point; it can also throw the theater out of kilter. Bob Verini's right in his Variety review: "One messes with Beckett at one's peril, and this production takes multiple liberties with dialogue and stage directions." But the liberties, with one exception, seem to me to be the lie that tells the truth, interpretations at the service of the text.

    (The exception is the substitution of "Napa country" for "Macon country," an attempt to bring the same sense of locality to a California production that Beckett presumably intended in his French-language original.)

    We thought the entire cast was well balanced, eloquent, totally engaging, and the physical production magical. Hooray for the production crew: Sets, Michael C. Smith; costumes, Angela Balogh Cain; lighting, James P. Taylor; stage manager, Yolanda A. Banos; and the cast, Joel Swetow (Estragon); Robertson Dean (Vladimir); Mitchell Edmonds (Pozzo); Mark Bramhall (Lucky); Frankie Foti (Boy).

  • The Winter's Tale (Shakespeare): "Not my favorite play," one friend noted, when I told her we were going to see it; "I don't like it," said another. Me, I like this play, a lot. I think we've seen three productions in the last five years, for some reason; it seems to be in fashion. But Noise Within, by setting it opposite Dear Brutus and the two of them flanking Godot, brought a new dimension to The Winter's Tale in my mind; never had I noticed before its curious relationship to The Tempest, which we've also seen three times in recent years.

    Shakespeare gives us two plays here: a hard-edged, driving tragedy about a king suddenly gone quite mad with jealousy; then a romantic comedy — another Forest-of-Arden — affair, with a fool, rustics, young lovers and the like. The play is about resolution, and ends with the two plays coming together with the help of a little magic transcendence (and a coup de theâtre which, when it works, as it did here, puts tears in my eyes — true, you have to suspend your disbelief).

    The production had its flaws. The famous stage direction "exit, pursued by a bear" didn't work any the better for there having been in fact a bear onstage, or an improbable piped-in roar offstage. Geoff Elliott was a powerful and (to me) credible Leontes, but the almost chanting text-projection he used to suggest menace became over-familiar by the end of the play — when, however, his about-face seemed quite as believable as his original lapse into madness. Worst of all, to my mind, the village-rustic antics were made far too big.

    On the other hand the costumes and lighting worked beautifully, and a solo violinist, Endre Balogh, played unaccompanied music of his own composition to provide understated and quite useful punctuation to the scenes.

    To me, Tale suffered by comparison with Godot, though it grew considerably by its reference back to the Brutus of two evenings earlier. To another of our group, though, The Winter's Tale was the highlight of the visit. Another great thing about theater and specifically A Noise Within: there's something here for anybody. So we return next May to see another three: The Night of the Iguana; Henry IV, part one; and Molière's Don Juan. How's that for interesting repertory?
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