Friday, May 16, 2008

The Night of the Iguana

ON A TRIP TO LOS ANGELES back in 2002, having a spare evening on our hands, we noticed Noël Coward's Hay Fever was playing at a theater in Glendale, and we went to see it. It was so good we returned the next year for the full season, because the company, A Noise Within, not only does plays in repertory, but schedules them in such a way that if you're careful you can catch three plays in four days twice in the year -- usually in late November and mid-May.

We've been back every year since, often with a friend or two, and we've rarely been let down. We've seen some interesting plays, including Moliere, Racine, Feydau; Ibsen, Chekhov; Shakespeare a couple of times each season; and American notables: Inge, Wilder, Miller. We've seen Euripides and we've seen Beckett. And many of these productions have been very good, right up there with what you see in Ashland, for example, but in a small thrust-stage theater where nearly every image is a close-up.

Last night we saw The Night of the Iguana, Tennessee Williams's study of repressed obsession and expressed craziness in a seedy 1940 Mexican beachfront hotel. Play, production, and performances are all three memorable: it was as good a night in the theater as I can remember enjoying, anywhere, any time.

Much of this is because of Geoff Elliott's absolutely riveting portrayal of the lead, Shannon: his voice, face, gestures, pacing, visual expression all completely on the mark in every second he's on stage -- which is virtually the entire evening. His emotional and physical range are encyclopedic. But masterly as his individual performance is, he's always part of the ensemble. His portrayal, and those of the rest of the cast, are utterly persuasive: but in nearly every case the interactions among the cast, the moments of brittle or pungent or suddenly tender contact, seem to take on life themselves, becoming extra, unseen personages, enriching Williams's essentially poetic drama.

Deborah Strang was a marvelous widow Faulk; her own story, greatly described but barely plumbed by the script, becomes as big a component as that of Shannon. Jill Hill played the ultimately strong female character, Hannah, with considerable resourcefulness, carefully attuned to the long line of the evening.

The production has been faulted as "overwrought and undermodulated," but I don't agree. It's often loud and always detailed, but though high-keyed, both Williams's script and Michael Murray's direction seem to me both accurate and evocative. It's a Big Evening of theater, full and strong. Only two performances remain, on the afternoon and evening of May 25.

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