A common rap on Angelenos is that we’re too often oblivious to the past. So why does LA theater keep churning out classics as well as new or new-ish plays?
Cynics might say that classics seldom require paying royalties, so LA’s cash-strapped companies can save a few bucks by looking backward.
Perhaps the best rebuttal to such cynicism is A Noise Within. The still-in-Glendale, all-classics company, which is decamping to Pasadena next fall, has opened its final rep set at Glendale’s former Masonic temple with a full-throttle, 16-actor Comedy of Errors (with nine Equity members on contracts). OK, the company doesn’t have to pay royalties to Shakespeare, but neither did it have to commission a movie-within-the-play — yet it did.
That movie is a swell solution to the first and foremost problem with Comedy of Errors — that the play has barely begun when a merchant character launches into a 104-line explanation of the back-story of how he has landed in Ephesus, despite laws that forbid him from being there. A long and complicated expository monologue is a treacherous way to begin a comedy; audience members who already know the story, and also Shakespeare newbies, might tune out after, say, 25 lines, unless some visual accompaniment keeps them entertained. Frequently that entertainment is in the form of a little dumb show.
In Michael Michetti’s staging, however, the merchant’s story is illustrated by a ’20s-style silent movie, complete with titles and outdoor locations, directed by Ali Murtaza. Fortunately, it blends easily with the time and place of Michetti’s overall concept, which is inside a ’20s-style vaudeville/burlesque club that’s presenting a show called “Burlesque on Brand” (Brand Boulevard is the street where A Noise Within is located until next fall).
Setting Comedy of Errors in that era and milieu isn’t a new idea. In fact, A Noise Within did a Comedy of Errors 10 years ago that leaned mildly in that direction, and the most famous musical adaptation of the play, The Boys From Syracuse, was itself created in the ’30s and draws on comic shtick from that period. In Michetti’s staging, one speech by Abby Craden’s Adriana comes close to being a Syracuse-style musical number, but it stops short — Craden speaks it rhythmically instead of singing it. A Noise Within does classics, not new musicals.
Yet the production is full of incidental music, written and performed mostly on an upright piano but also on a percussive instrument called a bell tree, which provides an aural signal at each reference to a gold chain that is a key element of Shakespeare’s convoluted plot. The frequency of those references is gently mocked by the use of the bell tree, just as any hint of sentimentality in the text is mocked by the piano score’s sudden turns into mawkish strains that sound straight out of a silent-movie score. David Bickford is the invaluable composer/sound designer/pianist/bell tree player.
Although Michetti’s concept isn’t novel, the extent to which it has permeated just about every minute of the production, without obliterating the original, is remarkable. The visual design helps, with Kurt Boetcher’s set and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes combining pretentious with tacky in perfectly appropriate amounts, and with Elizabeth Harper’s lighting adding yet more emphasis to the already emphatic line deliveries that are common in burlesque.
At the outset, the actors are introduced with great fanfare, including announcements of each act’s specialty — one does accents, one is a ventriloquist — and that ventriloquist (Rene Ruiz) later comes in handy at a key moment in the story. The young ingénue (Annie Abrams), who plays the role of Adriana’s sister, turns out to be a soprano whose coloratura effusions can barely be stifled. Gibby Brand, who plays two roles in drag, gets a whopper of a first-act-closing verbal “button,” which is not to be found in any folio that I’ve ever read.
This production, like the 2001 version at the same theater, casts only one actor (Bruce Turk) as both Antipholuses and another actor (Jerry Kernion) as both Dromios, but I’m duty-bound not to give away how Michetti and company accomplish that last scene, when all four twins finally are on stage at the same time.
Raucous, irreverent and most of all, funny, Michetti’s “Burlesque on Brand” is a testament to the joys of enlivening Shakespearean comedy with a strong and consistent concept. It’s so delightful that I anticipate demands for it to be continued next season in the new and larger theater. Maybe there it could be called “Follies on Foothill.”
The Comedy of Errors, A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. In repertory. March 23-24, 8 pm; April 14, 15, 23, 8 pm; April 23, 24, 2 pm; May 1 and 14, 2 pm; May 1, 7 pm; May 5-6, 14, 8 pm. 818-240-0910 x1. www.ANoiseWithin.org.
SPEAKING OF CONCEPTS: While “Burlesque on Brand” feels like a natural fit for Comedy of Errors, Marianne Savell’s setting of Actors Co-op’s King Lear in 1850s California feels distracting and, at times, simply baffling.
There is no explanation of it in the program. In the production, it’s apparent primarily in the Western costumes, the use of guns and occasional references to “cowboys.” But I heard no references to the more specifically 1850s phenomenon of the Gold Rush. Most of the place names remain the same as in Shakespeare, with one exception — Edgar pretends to escort his blind and suicidal father to the cliffs of Marin instead of the cliffs of Dover. So maybe we’re not really close to Gold Rush country. Still, wouldn’t mentioning the existence of mining rights in the division of Lear’s estate have been an easy way to justify the setting?
For the record, after seeing the play, I read the press release, in which Savell says she’s a Deadwood fan and that in her production, “the setting fits the play: the division of land, people relying on nature and the lack of law and order.” Well, OK, but those themes could be developed within many settings. And most people who see the play aren’t going to read the press release.
How about a King Lear set in modern-day Hollywood, right outside Actors Co-op’s door? After a wealthy Hollywood Hills patriarch gives his inheritance away prematurely, he could be forced to wander into homeless shelters and soup kitchens or even Griffith Park — if you wanted to preserve the sense of being outdoors in the rain and the wilderness. That’s a setting that would register strongly from the get-go, without the need for further explanations.
Savell’s Lear is streamlined, which I didn’t mind after seeing two other Lears within the past year, and it’s generally well-spoken, in several accents that might well have been heard in 1850s California. But requiring Tawny Mertes, who plays Cordelia, to appear in a secondary role as a “cowboy” is not a good idea.
Considering that the average age of the Sunday matinee audience appeared to be about 70, and that this is a play that focuses on aging, it was a little discouraging that quite a few theatergoers chose not to return after the intermission (thereby missing a surprisingly gory eye-gouging, among other highlights of the second act).
King Lear, Actors Co-op, Hollywood Presbyterian Church, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm; Sun and this Saturday March 12, 2:30 pm. Closes April 3. 323-462-8460 x 300. www.ActorsCo-op.org.
NOHO CLASSICS: Pinocchio is certainly a classic tale, but most of us have never seen a staged production of it quite like Stephen Rothman’s at Deaf West Theatre. Of course it features Deaf West’s usual and ever-fascinating combination of signing and speaking. Lee Hall’s adaptation stays unusually close to Carlo Collodi’s 1883 source material. Besides the expected hijinks, the mischievous puppet gets into deep and somewhat scary trouble — the “Playland” sequence is chilling.
Generally, the production is nimble and winning, but it’s also a little too long — not just for kids’ attention spans (it’s not recommended for anyone under 10) but also because the comedy and the slapstick don’t quite develop enough momentum, especially in the absence of more dimensional characters. I’m not sure that the story is best served in one evening’s package, as opposed to reading a chapter at bedtime every night.
Just around the corner from Pinocchio is a classic of an entirely different stripe — Oedipus the Tyrant, as translated by Jamey Hecht (who also plays two roles) and directed by Thomas Bigley, who also plays Creon. I’m sorry to say this is the first of the 13 Porters of Hellsgate productions I’ve seen. It’s painstakingly somber but strikingly accessible and clear, with enough gravitas in the key roles and Taylor Fisher’s choreography to mitigate the exceedingly youthful appearance of some of the cast members, as well as the bare-bones design.
By the way, a few of LA’s classical ensembles have some truly creative names — A Noise Within, Antaeus, Porters of Hellsgate, Theatricum Botanicum — but I wonder if such names really serve their marketing purposes as well as, for example, “Independent Shakespeare Company” or “Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles,” which need less explanation. A Noise Within, Antaeus and Porters of Hellsgate almost could be mistaken for the names of bands.
The Adventures of Pinocchio, Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thur-Fri, 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Closes March 27. 818-762-2773 or 866-954-2986 (video phone). www.deafwest.org.
Oedipus the Tyrant, Sherry Theatre, 11052 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fri 8 pm; Sat-Sun March 12 and 13, 7 pm and 10 pm; March 19 8 pm; Sun March 20 2 pm. 818-325-2055. www.brownpapertickets.com/event/149704.
CLASSIC WRITERS, UNKNOWN PLAYS: Lope de Vega and Tennessee Williams are certainly classic writers, and Angelenos currently have the opportunity to see two of their least known plays. I wouldn’t call these plays “classics,” but they’re of considerable interest nonetheless.
Dakin Matthews’ translation of Lope’s Spanish Golden Age play Castelvines y Monteses, here titled The Capulets and the Montagues, is expected to close this weekend, also in NoHo (see the previous segment of this column). It’s derived from the same source material as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but Lope didn’t know about Shakespeare’s version. The temptation is to regard it as another take on Romeo and Juliet, but we should resist that temptation, Matthews urges in an illuminating essay within the printed acting version of the play.
Capulets and Montagues is, as he points out, “not a tragedy, nor a comedy, nor even a tragicomedy but simply an ‘entertainment.’ The surprise twists and detachable comic turns are part of the almost ‘olio’ structure of the play, which often reads as a series of comic skits. And an essential element of [Lope’s] dramaturgical strategy is a meta-theatrical mocking of the very conventions of romance and tragicomedy…” For example, he notes that the deadliest argument in the play occurs over the burning issue of who gets to sit on which seat cushions in church.
Matthews’ analysis is convincing — don’t expect to be moved by these young lovers, because here they’re not quite so young, or quite as much in love. At the same time, the English title that Matthews chose doesn’t exactly discourage expectations of another Romeo and Juliet.
Anne McNaughton’s staging for Andak Stage gets a few laughs, but the play remains something of an academic curiosity. Its appeal may depend on how academic and how curious you are.
Williams’ final play A House Not Meant to Stand, at the Fountain, is more enjoyable, in the Southern Gothic comedy mode. It, too has hodgepodge elements, including echoes of Williams’ better plays: a power outage, a portrait, candles, the threat of confinement in mental hospitals, a scramble for an inheritance. There’s even a scene that reminded me of something out of Pinter’s The Birthday Party. But Simon Levy’s staging goes far enough beyond the “curiosity” factor that I expect it will attract not just Williams devotees but also fans of Beth Henley and even Del Shores. Alan Blumenfeld and Sandy Martin are tart and tough in the leading roles.
It’s certainly more entertaining than Camino Real, at Theatre @ Boston Court, the 1953 chin-scratcher that displays Williams at his most pretentious and, sad to say, his long-winded worst. Much of the problem with Jessica Kubzansky’s staging (in a co-production by Boston Court and CalArts) might be that it’s in a standard proscenium configuration. The last Camino Real I saw, a Pacific (now Resident) Theatre Ensemble production in Venice in 1991, was presented in a tiny space where the seats were scattered throughout the room, providing an intimacy and immediacy that are missing in the more remote set-up at Boston Court..
The Capulets and the Montagues, NewPlace Studio Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove Street, North Hollywood. Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm. Closes Sat. 866-811-4111. www.Andak.org.
A House Not Meant to Stand, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., LA. Thur-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Closes April 17. 323-663-1525. www.FountainTheatre.com.
Camino Real, Theatre@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thur-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sun. 626-683-6883. www.BostonCourt.org.