Saturday, April 24, 2010

Awake and Sing

Glendale, April 23—
For our second night of theater here Noise Within gave us a stunning performance of Clifford Odets's Depression-era Awake and Sing, a solid, often poetic, tense, deep drama set within a Jewish family in the Bronx, with three generations of immigrants and first-generation Americans squaring off against one another, Capitalism, ungrateful employees, hard times, repressed strivings, bitterness, and the human condition in general.

It was like Chekhov with a seriously nasty case of heartburn, I thought after the first act; not long into the second I realized it was much more than that: it was like a Mahler symphony. Humor, grief, anger, transcendent yearning all flow into and out of one another. There's a story, of course, and it's well conceived and well developed; but it's the matter beyond the story that held the near-capacity audience in a grip. I'm on the road, not at my computer where I have facts at hand, so I can't list the plays I've seen over the last few years this resonated with, Italian and English and American plays, many of them set in the same general period, when totally desperate situations forced families and individuals to totally desperate actions.

One play that it particularly resonated with was last fall's adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, also produced by A Noise Within. They have in common the drama of intense socio-politico-economic moments impacting desperate, sensitive, intelligent characters, of course. Beyond that, though, they even share the idea of a physical set influencing, or at any rate underlining, the way those tensions are achieved on the stage.

We like this Glendale company for the same reason we like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; both are repertory companies, developing and performing a number of productions simultaneously. Shakespeare's Globe Theater, Odets's Group Theater, Molière's Comédie, Chekhov's Moscow Art Theater — all, if I'm not mistaken (and I repeat: facts are not readily at hand), were repertory companies centered on the players, strong companies with strong ensembles.

Players lucky enough to work within such ensembles can trust one another, share ideas, probe the depths of the works they interpret. Further, they inescapably grow from one production to the next — not becoming better actors; they're already enormously skillful — but developing greater depth and complexity, just as do the audiences lucky enough to follow them through Shakespeare, Racine, Molière, Ibsen, Chekhov, Synge, O'Neill, and so on.

Tonight's performance was draining. The entire cast turned out on stage a few minutes after the final curtain to field questions from the audience, and it was immediately clear that the audience was exhausted, the cast exhilarated. I think that's as it should be: Aristotle's catharsis reversed, perhaps; but we'll have time and matter to think this over in the weeks to come.

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