Too bad Father’s Day isn’t in the early autumn. It could provide a promotional opportunity for A Noise Within’s Cymbeline and South Coast Repertory’s Eurydice.
These are father-daughter plays, although Cymbeline is also a father-sons play and, for that matter, it has a lot of other themes as well. But for either of these plays, a theater could easily run a Father’s Day promotion — 2-for-1 discounts if a father and an adult child attend the theater together — if only the calendar had cooperated.
Then again, the most vivid performances in these two productions are by villains, not by the fathers or the daughters. So any father and daughter who would take advantage of a Father’s Day promotion should be prepared for something that goes way beyond what Hallmark might offer.
I’ve occasionally nagged A Noise Within about picking too many of the familiar Shakespearean titles. For example, I’m still wondering why the company opened its larger new space a year ago with the perennial Twelfth Night instead of something with greater curiosity value. But then I suppose that a seldom-seen play’s curiosity value does not necessarily result in better box office, that the new venue itself offered plenty of curiosity value, and that the company wanted one of the Bard’s greatest hits to ensure that it was filled from the get-go. Fortunately, when the group introduced its spring repertory earlier this year, it was with the much less familiar Antony and Cleopatra.
On Saturday A Noise Within opened its 2012-13 season with the even less familiar Cymbeline. It’s not on the obscurity level of, say, Timon of Athens — Theatricum Botanicum produced Cymbeline in 2009 and A Noise Within did its first Cymbeline in 2000. But it’s hardly on the reading lists of most English lit or theater courses — which, let’s face it, are how most people find out about Shakespeare’s plays. And it has such a busy plot, seemingly borrowing devices from so many better-known Shakespearean plays, that it has been difficult for Cymbeline to implant its own image in the public consciousness.
That’s too bad, because the plot is more than busy — it’s lively and suspenseful enough to be called a page-turner if it were being read. If a director can sort it out as clearly as Bart DeLorenzo has done here, it’s a hugely accessible play, with a little something for just about every taste.
If I had to pick a key scene to promote the brand to a Hollywood producer, it might be the moment (somewhat enhanced from the original by DeLorenzo’s staging) when the young princess Imogen — disguised as a man while traveling, natch — wakes up to find her head resting on a man’s corpse! And then she suddenly notices that the corpse has no head of his own! And then that the corpse is wearing clothes that once belonged to the husband for whom Imogen is searching! And then she is suddenly discovered by a small group of enemy troops! Yikes!
To paraphrase Shakespeare himself, from a different play, this is such stuff as nightmares are made on.
And yet Cymbeline has a blissfully happy ending, with touching reunions and pardons galore. So those father-daughter theatergoers can go home with smiles on their faces.
Actually, some of those smiles come from watching the play’s somewhat preposterous villains. As depicted here, King Cymbeline’s stepson Cloten is indeed rotten. But with a geyser of unkempt hair erupting from his head and with a fussy vanity exuding from his pores, he’s also very amusing. He’s somewhat reminiscent of the impostor who was initially assumed to be the title character in Boston Court’s Government Inspector a couple months ago, not far from A Noise Within. Oh, wait — it’s the same actor, Adam Haas Hunter, delivering quite the one-two Pasadena punch with these two productions.
Or make that a one-two-three punch, because in Cymbeline Hunter also plays the romantic lead, Posthumus (a name that sounds like a comic foil’s name). Posthumus isn’t as interesting as Cloten, but he does allow Hunter to bounce quickly back and forth between a villain and a character who’s much more securely on the “good” side of the ledger. It’s all part of a DeLorenzo strategy, as he explains in a program note, to underline what he believes is Shakespeare’s “idea that it is very easy” to move between good and bad.
Likewise, Andrew Elvis Miller, who’s terrific as one of the play’s other villains, the commandingly lecherous Iachino, also gets to play the upright Roman commander Caius Lucius, wearing wigs that are so polar-opposite as to make their shared actor virtually unrecognizable.
And Francia DiMase, who plays the bitchy queen, also plays (in drag) the rustic “good” man who has been unfairly exiled from the court. The rustic isn’t as convincing as the queen, but in the fairy-tale atmosphere that generally prevails, lapses in physical verisimilitude can be easily forgiven.
Joel Swetow is a solid Cymbeline, the father in question, who gets to re-unite not only with his daughter Imogen (Helen Sadler) but with her two long-lost brothers (Jarrett Sleeper and Paul David Story).
The musical performances of some of Shakespeare’s loveliest lyrics could use stronger voices. But taken as a romantic yarn in a storybook setting, with a visual design that looks deliberately low-tech, DeLorenzo’s Cymbeline is a stirring reminder of the riches within some of Shakespeare’s lesser hits.
By contrast, Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, revived by director Marc Masterson at South Coast, has a relatively high-tech design that dazzles the eyes, as well as some luminous writing, but the story within is too slight and undeveloped.
I first noticed this in the 2006 production by Circle X at [Inside] the Ford. When Ruhl’s Eurydice is brought to the underworld, she first assumes that the older man who greets her is a porter. For reasons I can’t figure out, we don’t see the crucial scene in which she realizes that this man is actually her deceased father. Instead, we suddenly see them chatting away about the past without any explanation of how they surmounted all the previous warnings about trying to get together, and without the emotional benefit of the actual reunion/recognition scene (see Cymbeline, above). Nor do we sense that there has ever been a harsh word or an improper moment between father and daughter — their scenes feel more like a tribute than a drama.
For those who have previously seen the play, the dramaturgical holes in the script might be even more apparent because the design of SCR’s production is so spectacular (Gerard Howland’s sets, Soojin Lee’s costumes, Anne Militello’s lighting, Bruno Louchouarn’s sound). However, for those who haven’t seen the play, it’s possible that the design elements might temporarily overwhelm any thoughts that something is missing.
As in Cymbeline, however, just about everyone should enjoy the villain — Tim Cummings as the Lord of the Underworld. Cummings is memorable in just about anything he does (most recently, The New Electric Ballroom at Rogue Machine), but here — thanks in part to the above-mentioned designers — he has a field day. It’s a performance that’s surely heaven, not hell, for Cummings, as well as for the audience.
Cymbeline, A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Sat Oct 6 at 2 and 8 pm, Sun Oct 7 at 2 and 7 pm, Thu-Fri Oct 25-26 8 pm, Sat Nov 3 8 pm, Sun Nov 4 2 pm, Sat Nov 10 2 pm, Fri Nov 16 8 pm, Sun Nov 18 2 pm. www.ANoiseWithin.org. 626-356-3100.
***All Cymbeline production photos by Craig Schwartz
Eurydice, South Coast Repertory Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tue-Fri 7:45 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm and 7:45 pm. Closes Oct. 14. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
Two productions are examining Hollywood’s treatment of traditionally underrepresented and stereotyped groups — black women and gay men.
They approach the subject with very different techniques. Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Geffen is a satirical historical panorama. In the first act, its black title character is trying to be cast as the maid in a 1933 movie and has to prove her facility with the usual stereotypes in order to do so.
After intermission, the action skips to a 21st-century panel discussion among academics about Vera’s career in retrospect, which relies primarily on a “clip” (re-enacted on stage, as part of the play) from a 1973 talk show on which Vera appeared.
It turns out that Vera and the white woman who employed Vera as a maid — a relationship that’s reflected in that 1933 movie, in which they appeared together as employer and maid — are actually cousins through a common grandmother. They grew up in vaudeville together. But their lives are dictated by color and the approved role-playing for each race.
The characters in the later scenes are also playing roles to a certain extent, although the rules have somewhat changed.
Nottage is attempting to raise questions that go beyond the role of black women in ’30s Hollywood. She has fractured the focus a little too much for the play to feel entirely clear in its aims, but the techniques she uses are so unpredictable that the play maintains a refreshing sense of openness, flying in the face of the didacticism that might have been expected and creating quite a few laughs along the way.
By contrast, Justin Love, at Celebration Theatre, is a musical, set entirely in the present day, asking primarily when it will be possible for big-time movie stars to come out as gay. It isn’t nearly as concerned with the depiction of gay men in the movies as it is in establishing the freedom of actors to publicly acknowledge being gay. Its ambitions aren’t nearly as wide as the Nottage play’s, but it’s more cohesive.
From the writing team of Lori Scarlett and David Manning (score) and Patricia Cotter and David Elzer (libretto), the musical also creates its share of laughs, primarily from its acerbic look at the contemporary Hollywood success machine — a familiar butt of humor, of course. But as an advocate of theater set in LA, I enjoyed seeing scenes at Griffith Park and Venice as well as the usual Hollywood haunts.
The production of Vera Stark at the Geffen — the play’s second — is beautifully cast and focused under the direction of Jo Bonney. Michael Matthews’ staging of the premiere of Justin Love is a bit hobbled by the casting of the two leads. Adam Huss and Tyler Ledon look their parts, but neither of them has a voice that does full justice to the songs. And the chemical reaction that supposedly brings them together also feels a bit muffled.
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Oct 28. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
Justin Love, Celebration Theatre, 7015B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Nov 18. www.celebrationtheatre.com. 323-957-1884.
***All By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and Justin Love production photos by Michael Lamont