Sunday, May 12, 2013

Two more plays in Pasadena

Pasadena, California, May 12, 2013—
QUICKLY NOW, BECAUSE it's late and we have a longish drive tomorrow, let me sum up the rest of the spring season here at A Noise Within, whose productions continue to impress us after all these years. Yesterday we saw Frank Galati's adaptation for the stage of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, a work that perhaps means more to me than it will to you, since my father was born in Oklahoma, and lived through the Dust Bowl, the great Oklahoma migration, and all that.

I shouldn't have to write much here about the novel, which traces the eviction of the Joads from their Oklahoma farm, their travels across the Southwest to the migrant worker camps of the California Central Valley, the unspeakable poverty and hardship of the period, the injustice and inevitability of their exploitation at the hands of ranch managers, their brutal treatment by the establishment, and all that. You think the last few years have been tough in the USA: you have no idea how things were in the years before World War II.

It's a long time since I've read the book — I really should re-read it, I know — so I can't be sure: but this adaptation, while necessarily episodic, seemed faithful to me, fleshing out the main characters mostly through Steinbeck's words, organizing the high points of the lamentable narrative effectively, leavening what might otherwise have been overwhelmingly depressing deaths, disease, and failure with the finally irrepressable energy of the daily untutored will to live, and to live with dignity and decency.

Michael Michetti's direction was straightforward and effective. Matt Gottlieb, Steve Coombs, and Deborah Strang stood out in the large and effective cast as Casy, Tom Joad, and Ma, with Mark Jacobson a remarkable Noah and Lili Fuller growing through the course of the play as Rose of Sharon.

Many in the cast sang, danced, and played instruments — fiddle, guitars, bass, jug — with skill and vigor, contributing to a sense of authenticity. One would never want the country to return to such hard times, but it sure would be nice if people could once again be that good, that adaptable, that determined. This was a first-rate production. If it could travel the length and breadth of the land, Americans might learn something positive about their heritage, about the honesty and justice of workers and the out of work.
THEN THIS AFTERNOON we saw a rare production of The Beaux' Strategem, the 1707 comedy by George Farquhar, in an adaptation by Thornton Wilder that was abandoned, then finished recently by Ken Ludwig.

It's a Restoration Comedy, I suppose, about scoundrels: impoverished gentlemen, louche inkeepers, a highwayman doubling as a parson, a dotty old woman dabbling in surgery, and the like. Beatrice and Benedick meet commedia dell'arte, action gives way to direct address to the audience, jokes are made at Mr. Shakespeare's expense.

In Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's brisk direction, it was all great fun. Blake Ellis was superb as the blandly loveable Jack Archer; Freddy Douglas a good match as his sidekick Tom Aimwell. Abby Craden and Malia Wright were just under overwrought, good-looking and very funny as the young ladies Kate Sullen and Dorinda. Apollo Dukakis did his characteristic wide-eyed goof for the Boniface, and Deborah Strang defined demented zaniness as Lady Bountiful.

Best of all, perhaps, Robertson Dean portrayed Sullen. I don't think I've ever seen a more complex, longer, more utterly believable, and funnier drunk impersonation than his. He was absolutely hilarious. The whole show was. There are serious things here, comments on Science, on The State of Woman, on class warfare. (At one point, a gentleman masking as a servant declares they are all on the cusp of a great upheaval in such relations: and this is the early 18th century.)

One of the most remarkable things about this company, A Noise Within, is its record, its ability, with repertory, balancing serious drama with entertainment, looking in dusty corners of repertory, finding vehicles that stretch the company and its audience and that speak to one another, developing an intelligent conversation about the constant human condition through the theatrical entertainment that has been devised throughout the centuries, across boundaries of nation and language. This spring season has, in one sense, simply been one more example. In another sense, it has been exceptionally effective.

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