Pasadena, April 22, 2012—A WEEK LATER, and still thinking about Seagull. Two nights ago we saw Illusion, Tony Kushner's adaptation of Pierre Corneille's 17th-century fantasy l'Illusion comique, and I couldn't help thinking of Chekhov afterward. Seagull opens with a play within the play: Konstantine Treblyev, one of Chekhov's main characters, an intelligent and artistic but unachieved young man apparently in his mid-twenties, has written a Symbolist drama set far in the future on a lifeless world; he quickly and impusively cancels its performance when his actress mother belittles it.
It's not hard to think Chekhov is writing partly about himself, and the relationship his own pathbreaking art bears to the popular literature of his day. Like Kostya, Chekhov writes for the future; some of the time, I think, deliberately attempting to shape that future.
Equally true of the 27-year-old Corneille, who drew on commedia dell''arte as well as classical genre to write l'Illusion. A prologue, three comedies, and a tragedy, he called it, bringing new vigor to old forms by playing them off one another. It's a postmodern idea; it's recursive; it's innovative. Of course today's audiences aren't as familiar with the classical sources as Corneille's audience would presumably have been: hence the advantage of a Kushner adaptation, which I must say respects the original surprisingly consistently.
Kushner retains the original rhymed metrics only occasionally, and then at heightened introspective moments. He omits one character, folding his lines into asides. He adds an inspired epilogue. But he retains the original's sense of wonder, hilarity, and romance, alternating and often combined, throwing the audience off guard as often as the pivotal character Pridamant (Nick Ullett, stolid and diverting), whose search for the errant son Calisto (Graham Hamilton, dimensioned and memorable) precipitates all these improbable events.
I don't know the extent to which Shakespeare's plays were already known in France in 1634, when l'Illusion was premiered. It's easy to see elements of The Tempest here: Pridamant consults the magician Alcandre (Deborah Strang, reliably effective) for news of his son, ten years after losing him, and in a series of scenes she presents him, his romances, his reversals, his eventual execution — this doesn't really qualify as a spoiler. Like Shakespeare, too, Corneille uses extant dramatic conventions (not to mention old plots and routines) to contain, or suggest, really profound contemplations of illusion and reality, convention and enterprise, imponderability and meaning.
This production brought a fair amount of new talent to the repertory company A Noise Within, whose plays we've attended for ten years or so. Strang's a company veteran and always a real pleasure to see, but Ullett and Hamilton are new to the company. So too are Casey Stangl, whose direction was swift and sure, and Keith Mitchell, whose scenic design was moody but compelling. The cast was remarkably consistent: Jeff Doba as the creepy servant Amanuensis, Alan Blumenfeld as a lunatic Matamore, Devon Sorvari as Calisto's beloved Melibea, and Abby Craden as the ingenue Elicia, Freddy Douglas as Calisto's rival Pleribo. Of these, Doba and Sorvari are also making welcome company debuts, and they're welcome. As is the play, which is really wonderful; it's such a pleasure that A Noise Within brings French repertory to its stage.
THEN LAST NIGHT we were plunged to the other end of the range of theatrical delight with an utterly misconceived production of Antony and Cleopatra, played apparently for laughs and spectacle at the cost of anything like romance or majesty or insight. Geoff Elliott bobbed his head and mouthed his lines in an incomprehensibly off-hand impersonation of the flawed Mark Antony; Susan Angelo lounged about as a nightclub Cleopatra; the direction, by company co-directors Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, settled for stylized violence and sketchy amorousness. Costumes seemed routine at best, otherwise distracting; stage design and lighting seemed merely serviceable. Robertson Dean was an effective, subtle, and sympathetic Enobarbus, which oddly made the character seem distracting in this company.
No doubt about it: It's a difficult play, for reader, audience, cast, and directors. All the more reason to give Shakespeare his due, which is thoughtful study and evocative, enterprising production. This doesn't happen in this production.
TONIGHT MADE IT TWO out of three, though: Molière's The Bungler (L'Étourdi), his first verse comedy, ably translated in rhyming couplets by Richard Wilbur, was a total delight, funny, well cast, imaginatively directed, with fine musical interludes (and the best theatrical overture I've heard in years). The extraordinarily gifted comic actor JD Cullum was a masterly Mascarille, the servant whose feckless master Lelie (Michael Newcomer, also gifted) needs help releasing his beloved Celie (Emily Kosloski) from various complications.
Here's another play with recursive elements: Mascarille devises plots, presses his master and bystanders into service carrying them out, revises things as his boss inevitably bungles them; you can be sure Mascarille is Molière himself. The rest of the cast was quite up to Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's detailed and zany direction; Angela Calin's costumes were on the mark, David O's musical score was resourceful (and featured a magnificent tuba player). I would happily see this production every third Friday evening for the rest of my life.
• A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; 626.356.3100; plays continue in repertory through May (see website for schedule).