Over the weekend, A Noise Within hosted its final regular-season opening at its Glendale birthplace, before it ventures into its new home in the Wild East (aka known as east Pasadena).
The company’s artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott came up with the most ingenious valedictory imaginable for the occasion — Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if a single line in Donald M. Allen’s translation of Ionesco’s 60-year-old absurdist classic started the Elliotts’ minds whirring as they considered how to say farewell to their final regular season in Glendale. (Footnote: a final farewell, outside the regular season, will take place June 3-5 in a retrospective program devoted to the company’s 19 seasons so far).
In The Chairs, an Old Man and an Old Woman have invited guests to hear the Old Man’s final message to the world, as delivered by an Orator. But before the Orator takes the stage, the Old Man offers his profuse thanks to everyone who helped him reach this fateful moment, almost as if he were an Academy Award winner who doesn’t have an encroaching orchestra ready to cut his remarks short.
Shortly after getting started, the Old Man turns his gratitude toward this particular group: “To the owners of this building, to the architect, to the masons who were kind enough to erect these walls!”
Ding-dong. That word masons rang a bell. A Noise Within’s home at 234 S. Brand Boulevard is, in fact, a former Masonic Temple. OK, we’re talking about two different kinds of masons — even so, suddenly The Chairs became a surprisingly site-specific production.
Of course, there are a few other things you should know about The Chairs. First and foremost, the Old Man’s intended audience at this august event is non-existent (as opposed to the real-life audience watching A Noise Within perform Ionesco). The Old Man and Old Woman talk to imaginary friends and even welcome an imaginary Emperor and his imaginary retinue into their audience, but the chairs that Geoff Elliott’s Old Man and Deborah Strang’s Old Woman drag onto the stage are never occupied by anyone other than themselves.
Second (and this is a spoiler alert, for those who aren’t familiar with the play), the Old Man’s speech of thanks and the Old Woman’s rote-like echoes of the Old Man’s words are followed by a mutual suicide, as both of them jump through windows into the water that apparently surrounds their domicile. Then, in the play’s hilariously heartbreaking and heartbreakingly hilarious climax, we finally get to hear the Orator (Andy Stokan) deliver the Old Man’s promised message — and it’s unintelligible gibberish.
In other words, director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and A Noise Within are making a self-deprecating jibe at any strains of pretentiousness that might accompany their upcoming transition — as well as acknowledging the ephemeral nature of any theatrical event, paying tender tribute to their own dreams and those of anyone who engages in theater or in life, and recognizing the essential limits on humanity’s ability to make sense of what it endures.
This masterfully crafted The Chairs has more levels than most staircases, let alone most chairs.
On opening night, when many board members and other donors to the theater’s $13 million capital campaign were probably in attendance, it was especially audacious to suggest that all such ventures as those depicted in The Chairs might have no lasting legacy — at least not the kind of legacy that can be measured in bricks and mortar and chairs.
However, the exhilarating sense of discovery in the production itself confirmed that theater’s true worth is in the moment of communion between artists and audience, not in anything as tangible as a building.
It’s gratifying to be re-assured that A Noise Within understands its most fundamental priorities, even as it moves into its bigger playground. At the same time, it’s exciting to think about where else this company might take us, once it makes the move.
The Chairs, A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. In repertory with The Comedy of Errors and Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Chairs plays Thur-Fri, April 28-29, May 12-13, 19-20, 8 pm; Sat 2 pm, April 30 and May 21; Sat 8 pm, April 30 and May 21; Wed May 12, 8 pm; Sun May 15, 2 and 7 pm. Closes May 21. 818-240-0910 x1. www.ANoiseWithin.org.
As LA’s leading classical theater company approaches this pivotal landmark in its history, has anyone else noticed that Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty hasn’t reviewed any of A Noise Within’s six productions in the 2010-11 season?
In fact, of the company’s 33 new productions since he arrived at the beginning of 2006, he has reviewed three — one every other year.
During those five years, free-lancers reviewed all of the other ANW productions for the Times (which makes up a better track record for the Times than its recent history with a couple other, even larger mid-size companies). But free-lancers’ reviews aren’t as visible as McNulty’s reviews — and even his few A Noise Within reviews weren’t nearly as prominently displayed as, say, his report on Charlie Sheen’s staged implosion from Detroit a week ago, which appeared at the top of Calendar as a “performance review.”
This past week, the Times made sure that McNulty reviewed the touring Peter Brook production at Broad Stage, ASAP. This decision was probably dictated by the brevity of the Brook run as well as by the renown of the Brook name. Yet A Noise Within’s The Chairs is a much more accomplished absurdist adventure and a more satisfying experience than the Broad’s five Beckett shorts under the title Fragments — which made up the second half of Brook’s program. And in order to get to the mild joys of Fragments, we first had to sit through a stodgy solo reading of Dostoyevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. It too was directed by Brook, but several dozen LA-based directors could have staged it just as well, and several hundred LA-based actors could have performed it as capably as Brook’s colleague, Bruce Myers.
I bring all this up not to dishonor Brook’s lifetime of achievements (yes, I saw his Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Mahabarata) or Broad Stage’s marketing coup in snagging a tour of Brook work (no matter how slight it turned out to be), but rather to note how the Times often highlights imports — or LA’s own export of Sheen to Detroit — at the expense of LA’s home-grown theatrical achievements.
THE ESCORT VS. THE CRIPPLE: As a rebuttal to my own last point (above), fairness requires me to point out that last week McNulty also saw the home-grown premiere of The Escort at the Geffen on the same night that an Irish company opened a touring revival of The Cripple of Inishmaan at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. The Escort review ran promptly on Friday. As I write, the Times has yet to run a review of Cripple of Inishmaan, but I hear that McNulty saw it on Friday and his review should appear soon — although it has already been delayed longer than I can ever recall the Times delaying a CTG review.
I like both The Escort and The Cripple of Inishmaan. The former is Jane Anderson’s lively excursion into perilous sexual waters in contemporary New York, featuring strong performances under Lisa Peterson’s direction and a variety of unexpected plot turns — perhaps one or two too many, because a couple of twists near the end are somewhat implausible. Without giving away enough details to upset those who haven’t seen it, let me ask this one question for the benefit of those who have seen it — do you really think they would call the police?
I also wondered why The Escort is set in New York, not in LA. Could it have anything to do with the fact that setting it in New York might just give it an extra nod from critics in New York, where Anderson’s reputation isn’t as illustrious as it is in LA? There’s certainly no reason The Escort has to be a New York story — unlike, for example, another tale of sexual shenanigans, Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat. LaBute’s two-hander had to be set in Manhattan on the day after 9/11/01 for purposes of kick-starting its plot. I recommend Vs. Theatre Company’s current LA premiere of The Mercy Seat at [Inside] the Ford ““ it’s the best of the three productions at [Inside] the Ford this season, with biting but magnetic performances by Johnny Clark and Michelle Clunie.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is the Martin McDonagh comedy about a, er, disabled young man on a remote Irish island in the 1930s, who is briefly called to Hollywood for a screen test. The only other production I’ve seen was in 1998 at the Geffen Playhouse, where my memories of it are not especially fond, though I’m having a hard time remembering why. At any rate, it feels more at home in the Douglas, performed by the more genuinely Irish cast of Garry Hynes’ Druid Theatre tour (with New York’s Atlantic Theatre providing support). It helps if you understand, going in, that the humor is broad to an almost vaudevillian extent at time — although it still seems soft compared to McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore.
The Escort, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood. Tues-Fri 8 pm; Sat 3 and 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes May 8. 310-208-5454. www.geffenplayhouse.com.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tues-Fri 8 pm; Sat 2 and 8 pm; Sun 1 and 6:30 pm. Except: no Sat mat on April 16; no Sun evening performance on April 24. Closes May 1. 213-628-2771. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
The Mercy Seat, [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East,Hollywood. Wed-Sat 8 pm; Sun 2 pm. Closes April 24. 323-461-3673. www.FordTheatres.org.