Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Taming the Shrew

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, May 5—

AND WHAT OF the last of the three plays we saw over the weekend in Glendale? Well, treated reasonably decently, Shakespeare's Shrew-taming can't really fail, and while Geof Elliott's direction went over the top now and then, and while the vocal delivery annoyed me if not the rest of the audience with its occasional alternation of chant, shout, and whisper, there was a lot to like about this production.

Elliott transposed the time to the mid-20th century, leaving the action in Padua. There were bicycles, radios, and the chewing of gum. Costumes were what-you-can-find and hilarious: when Vincentio turns up, in the reasonable, comprehending person of William Dennis Hunt, he's wearing plus fours, as if he'd gone golfing in the 1930s and hadn't been able to change clothes since.

The play rides or falls from its lead couple, of course, and they were fine: Steve Weingartner a resourceful, mercurial Petruchio; Allegra Fulton a mean-tempered, lanternjawed Kate. Both seemed to me more fully thought-out individuals than is often the case: these were people you cared about and were interested in, not simply funny characters in a predictable tussle. The rest of the cast was quite sound, well up to the principals; I particularly liked Jane Noseworthy's fleshed-out, put-upon Bianca; but the speed of the action and the occasional indistinctness of the lines made them more of a jumble than is necessarily the case.

What I particularly liked about Elliott's direction was the parallels it drew between Shakespeare and commedia dell'arte, suggested but never belabored; and occasonal flashes of revelation — Vincentio foretells Prospero: who'd ever noticed that before?

A Noise Within has one season left in its present theater; then, if all goes well, it moves into a brand-new installation in Pasadena. It's been in its present location for a number of years; we've been seeing nearly all its plays since 2001. Over those seasons it's reminded me of the Michael Leibert's Berkeley Repertory Theater, the company that played in improvised digs up on College Avenue, making marvelous theater out of poverty and enthusiasm and intelligence.

This season was, I think, the best yet for NW. Hamlet, The Rainmaker, Oliver Twist; Ghosts, The Rehearsal, The Taming of the Shrew: fine balance between familiar and unusual but all classical, tested, beautifully thought-out and developed, and presented by casts with real sense of ensemble. I look forward to next season.
The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, directed by Geoff Elliott. Lucentio: Antonie Knoppers; Tranio: Jeremy Rabb; Baptista: Apollo Dukakis; Gremio: Tom Fitzpatrick; Kate: Allegra Fulton; Bianca: Jane Noseworthy; Hortensio: Stephen Rockwell; Biondello: Tim Venable; Petruchio: Steve Weingartner; Grumio: Alan Blumenfeld; Curtis: Andy Steadman; Pedant: Mitchell Edmonds; Vincentio: William Dennis Hunt (also a hilarious Tailor). Repeats May 6, 7, 16, 17.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Anouilh: The Rehearsal

Glendale, May 3—

I'VE BEEN THINKING all day about last night's play, The Rehearsal, translated from Jean Anouilh's La Répétition ou l'Amour puni by Pamela Johnson and Kitty Black and produced, very well indeed, at A Noise Within.

As I mentioned yesterday, that company, resident here, doesn't ignore the French classics: I think we've seen one every year for the last nine years. I'm extremely grateful for that: in ignoring the theater of other languages we Americans reinforce our tendency to cultural insularity. And these plays are important, not only for themselves but also for the conversation they strike up with other pieces. I've been thinking today of the conversation between The Rehearsal and Friday night's play, Ibsen's Ghosts. I'm sure they were chosen for that complementarity; it even fits Anouilh's basic concept in The Rehearsal, a concept I think of as characteristically French, that of double.

Anouilh himself plays off a much earlier theater piece, Marivaux's La Double Inconstance, which concerns a clash of classes more familiar to Americans perhaps via the Zerlina-Masetto subplot in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni. In all these vehicles a girl from the lower classes is toyed with by a nobleman: by the time the story reaches Anouilh, the Count, "Tiger," actually falls in love with his Lucile, hired to look after a dozen orphans (mercifully never on stage), precipitating serious consequences for his wife, his mistress, and most seriously of all his old friend Hero.

The play is long, talky, and complex, with the characters always in 18th-century French costume (since they're preparing an amateur production of the Marivaux play) and alternating between being themselves — wooden and arch enough, since they're mostly unoccupied and decadent anciens riches — and acting the Marivaux roles. But Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's direction is patient and thoughtful, guiding the audience as well as her cast through Anouilh's difficulties, and the cast is splendid.

The play is full of symmetries: the Countess and the Count's mistress are doubles; the Count and his friend Hero are doubles; and the relationships cross and parallel in delightfully complicated ways. It wasn't until today, though, that I saw that the ingenue Lucile, who seems to have no counterpart in the play, is the double of Regina, the maid in Ibsen's Ghosts. This made me see the similarity of Hero and Engstrand, both of whom cynically drive the action of their respective plots; and of Tiger and Pastor Manders, both of whom have to confront sudden awareness of hitherto repressed or unsuspected emotions.

Seeing plays in repertory like this provides unsuspected insights; we're lucky there are companies like A Noise Within and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to provide them.
The Rehearsal, by Jean Anouilh, directed by Julia Rodriguez-Eliot. Damiens: Mitchell Edmonds; Countess: Susan Angelo; Tiger: Robertson Dean; Hortensia: Jill Hill; Hero: Geoff Elliott; Villebosse: Steve Coombs; Lucile: Lenne Klingaman.
Repeats through May 24.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Relevance of Ibsen

Glendale, May 2—

HERE WE ARE in Glendale again, on a semiannual visit to see theater. The resident repertory company, A Noise Within, is worth the daylong drive; if you time it right, as we try always to do, you can see half the season's offerings in just a few days. There are plenty of cheap motels to stay in, and the food, well, see Eating Every Day.

A Noise Within sticks pretty well to the classics, which doesn't mean necessarily the predictable: these classics include French and Italian plays as well as Russian and Norwegian and, of course, English; and American "classics" extend as far as The Rainmaker (N. Richard Nash), seen last fall (along with Hamlet and Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Oliver Twist. Comments on those plays here).

Last night we saw Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts in a remarkable production. Even after having seen four exceptionally good productions a couple of weeks ago in Ashland, Ghosts was outstanding. The cast was beautifully balanced, exceptionally even, bringing depth and detail to the characters; the physical production was thoughtful and evocative; and Michael Murray's direction was straightforward but aware of the extended layers of the play.

(Murray adapted the text, according to the program; I haven't checked against the standard Archer translation (available online here); but the lines were convincing and the narrative clear.)

The "extended layers" just mentioned seem often to escape reviewers and even actors, to judge by online reviews and the comments of the cast and audience in a productive Q&A following last night's performance. Ghosts is "about" the usual Ibsen catalog: social hypocrisy, the oppression of women, the injustice of social classes, anomie, repression and rebellion. How could such a catalog not be relevant today?

And in Ghosts the narrative is driven by a disease (never specified) inherited by a young artist from his debauched father, dead these ten years: how could that not be relevant?

The genius of the classical theater is its embodiment of universal situations — the human condition — in individuated characters so detailed and interesting as to seem familiar, as if recreations of people we might know personally in our own daily life. Ibsen is often called the father of modern theater but he seems to me a better candidate for one of the last of the classics as well: a transitional figure, in fact, who recognizes the changes of his own time, toward the end of the 19th century — the dawn of Modernism — as a legitimate, understated, collective and invisible character in the cast of every play he wrote. (Peer Gynt excepted, perhaps, as his one truly modern play.)

It's unjust to single out any one actor from this unusually strong cast: they all bring physicality, voice, and intelligence to their roles. Their brilliance, technical and intellectual, individually and in ensemble, reveals the depth and complexity of Ibsen's play. This was an exceptional evening in the theater.

Ghosts, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Michael Murray. Regina: Jaimi Paige; Engstrand: Mark Bramhall; Pastor Manders: Joel Swetow; Mrs. Alving: Deborah Strang; Oswald: J. Todd Adams.
Repeats May 8 and 9 at 8 pm; May 9 at 2 pm.