Friday, October 30, 2015

Three Plays in Pasadena

Eastside Road, October 28, 2015—
•Georges Feydau: A Flea in Her Ear.
•Jean Anouilh: Antigone.
•Arthur Miller: All My Sons.
A Noise Within, Pasadena, seen October 23-25

Rafael Goldstein (Camille), Jill Hill (Lucienne), Geoff Elliott (Chandebise): A Flea in Her Ear at A Noise Within
Photo: Craig Schwartz
Plays seen at A Noise Within

2001: Hay Fever (Coward)

2002-03: Macbeth; The Triumph of Love (Marivaux); The Cherry Orchard (Chekov); Bus Stop (Inge); Measure for Measure; The King Stag (Gozzi)

2003-04: Coriolanus; The Miser (Moliere); The Price (Miller); Electra (Euripides); Twelfth Night; The Matchmaker (Wilder)

2004-05: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Homecoming (Pinter); A Flea in Her Ear (Feydeau); Julius Caesar; The School for Wives (Molière); Mourning Becomes Electra (O’Neill)

2005-06: Othello; Picnic (Inge); The Master Builder (Ibsen); Ubu Roi (Jarry); Arms and the Man (Shaw); The Tempest

2006-07: Phaedra (Racine); A Touch of the Poet (O’Neill); As You Like It; Romeo and Juliet; Loot (Orton)

2007-08: The Winter’s Tale; Waiting for Godot (Beckett); Dear Brutus (Barrie); Henry IV, Part One; Don Juan (Moliere); The Night of the Iguana (Williams)

2008-09: Hamlet; The Rainmaker (Nash); Oliver Twist (Neil Bartlett); The Taming of the Shrew; Ghosts (Ibsen); The Rehearsal (Anouilh)

2009-10: Richard III; Crime & Punishment (Dostoyevsky, ad. Campell & Columbus); Noises Off (Frayn); Waiting for Godot (Beckett); Much Ado About Nothing; Awake & Sing! (Odets); The Playboy of the Western World (Synge)

2010-11: Measure for Measure; Blithe Spirit (Coward); Great Expectations (Dickens); Noises Off (Frayn); The Comedy of Errors; The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (Williams); The Chairs (Ionesco)

2011-12 (inaugural Pasadena season): Twelfth Night; Desire Under the Elms (O’Neill); Noises Off (Frayn); Anthony and Cleopatra; The Illusion (Corneille, ad. Kushner); The Bungler (Molière, ad. & tr. Wilbur)

2012-13: Cymbeline; The Doctor’s Dilemma (Shaw); The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck, ad. Frank Galati); The Beaux’ Stratagem (Farquhar, ad. Wilder & Ludwig) (we did not see Eurydice (Ruhl))

2013-14: Pericles, Prince of Tyre; The Guardsman (Molnár); Endgame (Beckett); Tartuffe (Molière, tr. Richard Wilbur); Macbeth; Come Back, Little Sheba (Inge)

2014-15: The Tempest; The Importance of Being Earnest (Wilde); The Dance of Death (Strindberg, ad. & tr. Conor McPherson); The Threepenny Opera (Brecht-Weill); Le Mariage de Figaro (Beaumarchais, ad. & tr. Charles Morey); Julius Caesar

2015-16: A Flea in Her Ear (Feydeau, ad. & tr. David Ives); Antigone (Anouilh, ad. & tr. Robertson Dean); All My Sons (Miller).

Scheduled for spring 2016: Romeo and Juliet; You Never Can Tell (Shaw); Six Characters in Search of an Author (Pirandello, ad. & tr. Robert Brustein)

WE REMAIN ENTHUSIASTIC about this professional repertory theater company, to the point that we devote a fair piece of change to our subscriptions, drive hundreds of miles to see their productions, and do what we can to persuade friends to do the same. A Noise Within — hereafter ANW: the name is a stage direction in Hamlet — rewards us with six plays a year, scheduling them in repertory so we can see them all on two jaunts of (usually) four days each, three plays in the fall, the remaining three in spring. We met them in 2001, when we chanced on their exuberant production of Noel Coward's Hay Fever; we subscribed the next year, and you can see our rewards — over eighty performances seen! — in a box here. (Many of them have been discussed in previous posts here.)

WE BEGAN with farce. Farce: French for "stuffing," in the sense of minced food stuffed into a cooked dish. Usually that's some kind of cheap filler; and the first "farces" in the theatrical sense were in fact comedies played between the acts of a more serious drama.

A Flea in Her Ear is, I think, the quintessential French farce: fast and ironic, with a complex sex-based plot set on a cast of urbane, petty-bourgeois people driven by confusion and hypocrisy. The plot rests on a wife's belief her husband is dallying with another woman: a friend writes a letter for her, purporting to ask the husband to an assignation; the wife will be there, of course, to catch him out. (Cf. Beaumarchais: Le mariage de Figaro.)

The cast is large. Act 1: Husband, wife, husband's business partner, wife's best friend, her Spanish husband, nephew-with-speech-defect, doctor, butler, maid. Act 2 (dubious hotel): hotelkeep, his slatternly wife, his senile uncle, a drunk porter, a maid. In Act 3, of course, everyone is involved. To give an idea of the plot, here's a paragraph from the program's synopsis:

Meanwhile, Camille, the young nephew of Victor, is overjoyed to have his speech impediment corrected by a new silver palate from Dr. Finache. In celebration, he and the household cook, Antoinette, also hurry to the Frisky Puss Hotel, followed by Étienne, the jealous husband of Antoinette. Dr. Finache, also looking for a bit of fun, decides to go to the hotel in search of his own afternoon rendezvous…
Mistaken identities, secret walls, runs up and down stairs, recognized handwriting, familiar fragrances, kicks in the behind. It's a very physical comedy, skillfully directed (Julia Rodriguez-Elliott), evenly cast, and played with the precision that allows improvisation that you find only in repertory companies.

For all its riotous humor — you think of the Marx Brothers — their are affecting passages, moments when aging, or uncertainty, or class distinction passes quickly across the action, like a quick cloud across the summer sun. And Feydau is particularly good, I think, at presenting the feminine point of view: there are strong parts here for actresses.

I'll introduce you to the principals with just a few adjectives; they're all great fun to watch, both for their acting and for the characters they represent:

Etienne, the butler: Alan Blumenfeld, stately and arch
Camille, the nephew: Rafael Goldstein, quite hilarious
Dr. Finache, resourceful and amusing
Lucienne, the wife's friend: Jill Hill, nimble, suave, and affecting
Raymonde Chandebise, the wife: Elyse Mirto, often deep, quick, affecting
Victor Emmanuel Chandebise, the suspect husband
Geoff Elliott, solid, untiring, well-rounded
Romain, the business partner: Jonathan Bray, amusingly bland and self-involved
Don Carlos Homénidés de Histangua: Luis Fernandez-Gil, stock Spanish and very funny
Ferraillon, the hotelkeep: Jeremy Rabb, fully in character and unexpectedly funny…
They're all funny; no one actor runs away with this play. What's intense is how they manage to be entertaining: with the lines and situations, of course, that's a given. But beyond that they're making fun of the French, of the subject of the play, of farce itself. When the two young women meet and begin their conniving they are so Parisienne they brought a number of Paris friends to mind. The second-act slapstick laughs at its own tradition. At the close of the play, Romain's total unawareness reveals the unimportance of everything that's happened (or, likely, ever will happen).

All this is heightened by Fred Kinney's scenic design and Angela Colin's costumes that seem absolutely perfect. The Chandebise apartment is a marvelous portrait of the 1950s, the most recent time, Blumenfeld noted in the talkback after the performance, that the play could be set in, before the sexual revolution and the rise of feminism but recent enough to be enjoyed with a bit of nostalgia. Everything from wallpaper to candy-dish seems thoughtfully chosen to suggest both the taste and the folly of the time. And the costumes! You have to see to believe.

Lorna Raver (Nurse); Emily James (Antigone): Antigone at A Noise Within
Photo: Craig Schwartz
THE DIAMETRICAL OPPOSITE of French farce must be the co ol intellectual French drama of the 1930s and '40s, and no better example of that could be found than Jean Anouilh's Antigone. It is based, of course, on Sophocles' early tragedy, part of the Theban cycle, in which Antigone disobeys Creon's shocking and sacrilegious order that her fallen brother Polynices not be buried.

Anouilh's setting of the story, though, was written and even produced in occupied Paris in the early 1940s. You could see the writing and production of the play as a parallel to Sophocles' story: attention to the sacred rites, whether burial or theater at its most moral and civic, in the face of tyrannical censorship and manipulation.

This Antigone is as French as Feydau: clear, formal, neutral, cool, measured. In this adaptation it begins among the ruins of war, and Chorus — the understated Inger Tudor — summons the cast forth with her introductions, rather than identifying already present actors. Much of the quality of this production depends on a counterpoint between Chorus's narrative neutrality and emotional realism in the other major characters: Emily James's determined Antigone, Eric Curtis Johnson's bullish yet finally defeated Creon; Kyla Garcia's supporting, finally comprehending Ismene (sister of Antigone); Rafael Goldstein's simple, troubled Guard.

This production presents a new adaptation and translation, by Robertson Dean, a longtime affiliate of ANW (and an impressive actor). I haven't read the original French, but spot-checking suggests the translation (which Dean says is the first into English since the 1950s) is faithful to Anouilh, both his script and his intentions; and the scenic adaptation goes a long way to bridging a gap that might easily separate mid-century French and postmodern American audiences.

The opening tableau, for example: fragments of columns, broken furniture, toys and dolls, anonymous weapons; a tinny prewar radio console: we know we're in the ruins of war; it's vaguely of our time; but the anguish is due as much to our awareness of its timelessness and inevitability as it is to any direct impact on ourselves.

Dean's direction carefully tiptoes another discontinuity, that between drama and contemplation, exactly in parallel with Anouilh's intent, I think. Perhaps it is too careful: the audience comes away from the performance, I think, not exactly sure of what it has witnessed, or how it should respond. But as often happens, the significance of this Antigone, its moral weight and persuasion, grow in one's mind in the hours after leaving the theater.

I thought, while watching the play, how odd it was that A Flea in Her Ear should seem up-to-the-minute and crisp while Anouilh's cool Antigone seems a bit dated: fifty years ago it would have been the other way round. A few days after seeing them, I no longer consider the question. Good theater — and this borders on great theater — does that; it encourages the mind to forget about topicality, immediate relevance; to attend rather to timelessness and universality.

Deborah Strang as Kate, All My Sons, A Noise Within.
Photo: Craig Schwartz
WE WERE BROUGHT home from France with an early play by an established midcentury American playwright. In spite of his own address to universals, to my taste at least Arthur Miller's plays are dated. In setting his universals on detailed and specific American situations, Miller risked losing view of those universals. We think of Willy Loman as his character, not his significance. The virtue of course is that the character is more than a straw man, a type: in good directoral hands (as here) Miller's work is gripping whatever its period.

All My Sons is a fairly early play: 1947, two years before Death of a Salesman, which it often foretells. Its plot is centered on its recent history: Joe Keller owns a machine shop which provided some defective parts to the Air Force during the (Second World) war; he shifted responsibility to a partner who was imprisoned; his older son was lost in that war, and his wife clings to the belief her son will return.

Into this setting Miller introduces the younger son, Chris; his girl friend Lydia — who had been the older brother's intended — and Lydia's brother George. Thinking him guilty, Lydia has spurned her father, the falsely imprisoned partner; George has been persuaded of the facts of the case; the drama plays out to its inevitable conclusion.

It's a well-made play, even to Chekhov's familiar formula; and the rich detail of Miller's characters (I haven't mentioned lesser roles just as well fleshed out) and their middle-America small-town setting make it interesting, even absorbing. You like most of these people so much you're disturbed (as you're intended to be) by their anguish, by the hopelessness of their yearnings and evasions.

The play was directed by Geoff Elliott, who also plays the leading role, the factory owner Joe Keller. We've seen Elliott in a lot of plays: with his wife Julia Rodriguez-Elliott he founded A Noise Within, in 1992; and he's been the central lead actor in the years since. His portrayals are deep, complex, yet directly presented; they come (as do others in this repertory company) both from sympathetic and seemingly intuitive understanding of the roles and from intelligent and committed awareness of the theatrical tradition.

Opposite him was another company stalwart, Deborah Strang, whose portrait of Kate Keller, the wife and mother, was both intense and affecting. Strang is a magnificent actor; we've seen her dominate many productions — never stealing scenes, but energizing productions even when upstage and silent.

Maegan McConnell and Rafael Goldstein were just as solid, gripping even, as the young couple. (This was the third role we'd seen Goldstein play in three nights, all very different, each penetrating and endearing and intelligent.) The supporting cast were capable, but Miller, I think, depends more on a cast divided between major and minor roles than does either Feydau or Anouilh, a quality that threatens sometimes to move his theater closer to journalism than literature.

Again, the physical production was absolutely first-rate: Frederica Nascimento's scenic design, Leah Piehl's costumes, James Taylor's lighting, and the music and sound by Robert Oriol. All three of these plays were thoughtfully installed in the ANW venue, a half-thrust stage in a house offering fine sight-lines and no distant seats (though occasionally acoustically flawed).

I'd willingly go back to any of these three productions; they reach, I think, an unusually consistent level and a very high one at that.

• A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Boulevard, Pasadena, California; 626-356-3100;