Sunday, November 24, 2013

Et in Arcadia ego

WELL, JUST DOWN THE ROAD from Arcadia, in Monrovia. California, not Liberia, thank Hermes. We are here to see the fall season of A Noise Within, the repertory company whose plays we've attended for ten or twelve years now — convenient, since in four days we can see three plays.

Along the way of course we take in a few restaurant meals, which I describe at my other blog Eating Every Day; and a few museum shows — I'll get to the James Turrell and Sam Francis retrospectives in another post here.

First, though, the plays. Thursday night we saw Ferenc Molnár's The Guardsman (1910), a well-made play on the old theme of a man testing his wife's fidelity by flirting with her in disguise — a device made a tiny bit more probable since the husband is, after all, a professional actor.

This is material for farce, but in this production, translated by Frank Marcus, intelligently directged by Michael Michetti, and pointedly acted by Freddy Douglas (the Actor), Elyse Mirto (the Actress), and Robertson Dean (the Critic), the play made surprising reaches toward the speculative, sometimes philosophcal drama of a Pirandello. 

Douglas opened the play acting very broadly indeed, and I expected the play to be merely broad comedy. I was struck by the care and finesse that went into the dramatic curve of the performance, which moved effortlessly, seductively, toward a conclusion that leaves the audience and even, I think, the cast) quite up in the air, unresolved. Of course you don't see this play without thinking of the Mozart-da Ponte Così fan tutte, where the disguised-lover-testing-fidelity idea is actually doubled, and Don Antonio takes the role of Molnár's Critic (and the soubrette maid gets a much richer part).

Così, too, plays to mixed response. Beethoven famously though it too immoral to be allowed a production.  But the point of these plays is the equivocal nature of Ethics itself when brought to the service of Moralism. Any sting operation presents an ethical quandary, and the victim of any sting operation can plead Not-Quite-Proven simply by questioning the propriety of the enforcer having been deceitful himself. If virtue is its own reward — since to reward virtue is to bribe it — so to test virtue is to engage a procedure that inevitably punishes itself: any sting, growing out of deceit, can only falsify its own finding.

There's a second layer of complexity in The Guardsman, which is a play written for the theater. There, the other night, we saw actors play the role of actors who were playing roles; and tan ultimate question, actually investigaged aloud by the audience and cast in a talkback after the production, is, where does make-believe start, where does it stop? It's a serious squestion, because it raises the ultimate question of what Theater is, societally, for.

NEXT WE SAW a fine performance of Samuel Beckett's very hard play Endgame, with company co-artistic director Geoff Elliott directing and taking the lead role of Hamm; Jeremy Rabb as Clov, and Mitchell Edmonds and Jill Hill  in the garbage cans as Nagg and Nell.

I call it a hard play because itt is, well, stony, flinty. It's not difficult to understand. As Beckett once wrote, No symbols where none intended. Hamm is blind, old, decrepit, motionless in his chair, apparently dying. Clov tends to him, as one's life must attend to its approaching end. The play can seem almost unbearably bleak: hopelessness is often thought Beckett's chief subject. And indeed he wrote Endgame partly, I think, as an externalization, on the stage and in public, of the transactions in his three great novels Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, novels so reductive in spite of their length and so bleak in spite of their almost decoratively Baroque word-spinning that they were found very few readers.

Endgame lacks the popularity of Waiting for Godot, which is Chaplinesque in contrast to Endgame's Keatonism. But the language is superb. At the beginning of the performance I was concerned: Elliott seemed mannered, stilted. But the play proceeded just as The Guardsman had, moving from an opening — well, an opening gambit, I suppose — quickly into a middle game of great strength and intelligence and not a little grace. 

It's hard to find much to say about the play. I once loved Beckett's work, and nearly every poem, novel and play of his are still on the bookshelf in my study — way up high, since the books are arranged by author; so high as to be easily neglected. For a while Beckett seemed to have beome datedd, so logically does he proceed from the anxieties of World War II, the Bomb, Existentialism. Now, of course, in this century that threatens in so many ways to be even worse than the previous one, he demands our attention again. He's the Shakesperian Fool to today's demented despots. I wish I could see this Endgame again, and I wish our elected leaders and their assistants could be made to watch it over and over.

IWRITE THIS FRESH from seeing Noise Within's third play of the fall season, Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre — a play I'd never seen before. It's one of the four late Romances, with The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline (the last-named having been produced here last season). These plays extend Shakespeare's oeuvre out of the Elizabethan renaissance toward the Baroque; I think they look forward to Corneille (whose L'Illusion was produced here a year or so ago) and further, even, toward Gozzi, for example (whose Il re cervo was done here, as King Stag, quite a few seasons back).

At the talkback one of the first questions came from a man behind me who sounded a little out of sorts: Why have you chosen to perform this play? Pericles was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime, but has fallen into disfavor and has rarely been performed in my lifetime. The playwright is associated with his greatest hits: Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, perhaps As You Like It; A Midsummer Night's Dream; maybe Hamlet and Macbeth. Those are the Shakespeare the crowds want to see: but Shakespeare wants to be Shakespeare, and branch out, evolve, even though the result is in a direction seeminly at odds with the better-known corpus.

One objection to these late romances has been their unbelievability. They depend on sudden rages, incest, redemptions, coincidence, chance natural cataclysms. Pericles begins with a hero who discovers a father-daughter incestuous relationship, and who can believe that? Later, it shows a young virgin abducted and sold into sexual slavery, and who can believe that? Yet in recent years these stories have become commonplace. No matter how theatrical and arbitrary his plots — most of them stolen from sources much older, of course — Shakespeare seems unable to escape contemporary relevance.

Asked, after the play, how she would sum it up, the director said that she thinks of it as a man's journey toward grace. In spite of every calamity, Pericles finds resolution. Wife and daughter, each long thought dead, are returned to him. Perseverance is rewarded. 

  • A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd. Pasadena, California
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