Sunday, November 19, 2017

ENGLAND’S ROYALS SCRUTINIZED AGAIN IN "KING CHARLES III" AT PASADENA PLAYHOUSE

Jim Abele as Prince Charles in
"King Charles III"
All photos by Jenny Graham

Patience, it is said, is a virtue. If that is true, then Prince Charles, son of Queen Elizabeth II, must be a saint. Charles, Prince of Wales, has been first in line to become England’s King for sixty-five years - longer than any other heir in United Kingdom history - which goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror in 1066.

But all that changed in 2014 when British playwright Mike Bartlett penned his controversial, fantasy/fictional play “King Charles III”, which Bartlett labeled as a “future history play”. After all, Queen Elizabeth II at age 91 is still firmly ensconced on the throne.

“King Charles III, is currently on-stage at the venerable 100-year-old Pasadena Playhouse as of Sunday, November 12th. Some of the Shakespeare-like quality of the text that combines verse and modern vernacular, make this intriguing production (directed by Michael Michetti) a provocative evening in the theatre that is resonating with audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

NY Times senior theatre critic Ben Brantley put his stamp of approval on the New York production going onto say “…the play is a dazzling presumptuous drama … a flat-out brilliant portrait of a monarchy in crisis.” After seven seasons of the blockbuster TV series “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS, there are a lot of Anglophiles in America and a sizeable number of them live in Southern California. The Pasadena Playhouse production company features sixteen actors: eight principals and eight supporting actors plus a dedicated ensemble punctuated with glorious original music composed by Peter Bayne and recorded by the Pasadena Master Chorale.


Jim Abele, Mark Capri,
Dylan Saunders, Laura Gardner
The play begins with a procession of mourners/singers coming down the playhouse aisles on their way to Buckingham Palace following the funeral services of Queen Elizabeth II. The scene is one of muted pomp and circumstance.

Prince Charles (Jim Abele) is now technically the King, but is yet to be crowned in ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. The story explores the events that confront the new King, and the Royal family: Duchess Camilla (Laura Gardner), Prince William (Adam Haas Hunter), Duchess Katherine (Meghan Andrews), Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders) who wait to see what the new king and his advisor Reiss (Mark Capri) and Prime Minister (J. Paul Boehmer) and Parliament have planned for the country and its subjects.

Adam Haas Hunter and
Meghan Andrews
Prince William and Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, have plans to ‘assist’ King Charles in his quest to insure that most of the old laws are observed and not modernized too much. The king’s enemies consider him to possess the brain of a Brussel sprout, and believe him to be incapable of being the monarch. His prime minister and his cabinet ministers will not support him or his ideas; instead they plan on installing Prince William as a Regent-King.

Charles resists his ministers by refusing to sign the “Ascendency Act” that would transfer some powers away from the monarchy to Parliament, along with restricting the freedom of the Press. His continuing refusal to sign raises the issue of a constitutional crisis under English law. All of the events unfolding in this fictional tale, has a familiar ring to it for Americans. The opening night audience seemed to get this ‘ripped from the headlines story’ right from the get-go, laughing at some of the dialogue in places where laughter wasn’t exactly the appropriate response – it felt like I was listening to nervous gallows humor.

Jim Abele and
Laura Gardner
Jim Abele delivers a solid performance as the flawed, moody, misunderstood Charles. Laura Gardner’s Camilla has the right amount of pathetic, ditzy behavior along with her tossing non-sequiturs to amuse everyone – the characters as well as the audience. Adam Haas Hunter’s Prince William, at first appears to be a bored player merely waiting for the appropriate moment to embrace the plan hatched by the Prime Minister and Parliament to make him Regent-King. It’s a nicely nuanced performance, and along with wife Kate, the young Royal pair begin to relish the thought of becoming King and Queen of England. There’s enough palace and parliamentary intrigue taking place in this production to satisfy all fans of such storylines.

Prince Harry (Dylan Saunders), is the outlier in this Royal family. He’s independent, lives by his own rules and is harboring the thought of becoming a commoner in order live with his cockney-accented political activist girlfriend Jess (Sarah Hollis).

The staging of the production by director Michetti gets static at times with characters standing in a line. Also, the didactic approach in Act I of setting the characters in motion seemed a little unnecessary. American theatre-going audiences are pretty savvy when it comes to appreciating British history and the execution of its theatrical stage craft production excellence.

The real beauty of this production lies, not only in the ensemble cast’s talent, but also in the expertise of the creative team. The wide expansive playing area provided by Scenic Designer David Meyer allows Michetti to stage scenes on more than one level. The Lighting design by Elizabeth Harper creates the mood moments required by the narrative and the text especially in the Coronation scenes.

The costumes, wonderfully designed by Alex Jaeger, are visually stunning. It would take an experienced eye to determine that the ermine-robed, onstage characters with their crowns and tiaras and jewels aren’t the real deal. Everything just sparkles with authenticity. No one does English period pieces better than the Brits.

“King Charles III” performs at the Pasadena Playhouse through December 3, 2017. Don't miss it!

-- Jack Lyons

WALL STREET WHEELER-DEALERS ON STAGE AT NEW YORK'S LINCOLN CENTER IN "JUNK"

Matthew Rauch and Steven Pasquale star in JUNK. All photos by T. Charles Erickson
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”) highlights in his fictional play, set in 1985, what our current President claims he is doing or going to do when it comes to draining the Washington D.C. ‘swamp’ of insider trading, manipulators and financial sharks and lobbyists who roam the halls of Wall Street and Capitol Hill.

The ‘it’ is this case has a familiar ring to it.  In 2008, it was the crash of Wall Street that brought our economy to a near-paralyzing standstill. There was then, as now, plenty of blame to go around.
 
Akhtar’s play, crisply directed by Doug Hughes, is a searing indictment of financial perfidy and recklessness and its seeming disdain for the rule of law when ‘it’ comes too close to getting in the way of the art of the all-important deal.  There are many echoes of both the 1987 Michael Douglas film “Wall Street”, whose mantra that ‘greed is good’, along with Martin Scorsese’s 2013 take on “The Wolf of Wall Street”,where sharks and corporate raiders are seen behaving badly, is chillingly still alive and well.
 
The story, in short, revolves around a high-flying, risk-taking corporate raider Robert Merkin (Steven Pasquale in a potent performance).  Merkin is known as the King of junk bonds, and the author of the financial term “debt is an asset” concept which is always a key component in fashioning his multi-million deals.  He will do anything; sell out his partners, his life-long friends and colleagues, and even his family in his quest to become top-dog on Wall Street.

Teresa Avia Lim and Michael Siberry.

These top denizens who live in the shark tank have no loyalties or scruples. They are only interested in the pursuit of money. Lots of it. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. If the truth be known, these players don’t really need the money. They have plenty. It’s the adrenaline rush that comes from deals dreamed up by these driven, craven, men and women in an effort to become the top dog that obsesses them. It boggles the mind of those of us who know very little about how the world of finance works and the numbers generated.  In the words of some “it’s complicated”… who knew?
 
The set design by John Lee Beatty is eye-catching, in that the ‘cyc’ becomes a gigantic replica of the stocks and bonds read-out board at NYSE.  The set is a series of all glass doors and a set of sliding platforms that neatly allow the cast of twenty-three talented performers to move in and out their various character locations that switch from Merkin’s office, home, and those of his team members, to his undercover/mole associates, to the offices and homes of his corporate take-over opponents. Each group has a place to discuss (for the audience) the tactics of deal-making and betrayal when it comes to one another in their quest for Wall Street domination.
Joey Slotnick (center) and the company of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of JUNK.
According to playwright Akhtar, it’s not easy being a wheeler-dealer living in the pressure cooker environment that is Wall Street.  Not only is “JUNK” a hotbed of money-making, it’s also a place where sexual favors are exchanged for information and advantage, and again we’re ‘shocked to find out that gambling is going on’ at Wall Street and in broker offices. Ahh, but there is always a price to be paid for the lack of honesty, decorum and marital infidelity, but no more spoiler alerts here.
 
Akhtar’s plot is intriguing, and the dialogue for his cast of solid actors has the ring of authenticity.  In large casts, there are always standouts. “JUNK” is no exception.  Sharp, solid performances are rendered by Ito Aghayere as Jacqueline Blount, Michael Siberry, as Leo Tresler, Miriam Silverman as Amy Merkin, Joey Slotnick as Boris Pronsky, Rick Holmes as Thomas Everson, Jr., Teresa Avia Lim as Judy Chen, and Matthew Rauch as Israel Peterman.

The creative team led by director Hughes includes mood lighting by designer Ben Stanton that allows the audiences to see the costumes designed by Catherine Zuber and the on-stage projections of 59 Productions. If you are planning to be in NYC over the holidays, consider catching a performance of this potent production.

“JUNK”, is a slick production loaded with terrific performances. The show performs at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center, New York City, through January 7, 2018.

-- Jack Lyons

Thursday, November 2, 2017

A FLAWLESS, RIVETING “VENUS IN FUR” ONSTAGE AT CV REP IN RANCHO MIRAGE

Patrick Zeller as Thomas and Angela Sauer as Vanda in "Venus in Fur"
All photos by Jim Cox.

Great acting is often accompanied by great writing. The inspired playwright writes and talented actors breathe life into the characters. Then it falls to the gifted directors to infuse their expertise and personal visions into the process, much like a symphony conductor choreographs and leads the orchestra. When the stars in the heavens are properly aligned and the theatre gods shine down, the result is often a flawless, magical evening in the theatre.

In the case of CV REP Theatre’s current production of “Venus in Fur”, the gods have, indeed, given their approval. The dramedy, written by award-winning and Tony-nominated playwright David Ives, is brilliantly directed by CV REP’s founder and Artistic Director Ron Celona. The sexy and sizzling play knocked the socks off the opening night audience thanks to the performances of its two stars Angela Sauer and Patrick Zeller.  More about them later.

Playwright Ives is somewhat of a non-traditional theatre creature in that he is a screenwriter and a novelist known for his many short one-acts – he’s considered the master of the short form – which culminated in a full-length play, “All in the Timing”, which was the most produced play in America (after Shakespeare) in 1996.

Actors love his work because he writes about subjects and themes that allow them to stretch beyond their traditional creative boundaries. Fellow playwrights Christopher Durang (comedy) and Sam Shepard (drama) also fall into this category. They’re quirky and brilliant as well. Ives’ play dialogue incorporates a lot of street vernacular, which at times can be jolting but he never talks down to his audience. For my money “Venus in Fur” is his best short piece to date, and it’s a timeless play that never goes out of style or loses its relevance.

It’s an actor’s play, written for them and appreciated by them.  In this CV REP production, the audience is treated to two intelligent, high-octane, energetic performances.  This is the third “Venus in Fur” production that I’ve seen.  I reviewed the original Broadway show in New York in 2011 starring Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, with Arianda winning the Best Actress Tony.  San Diego Rep Company then produced an excellent production in 2013, with Caroline Kinsolving and Thomas Meeks as a formidable pair of dramatic performers.  Comparisons are odious at best, but I wouldn’t exchange this talented pair for any who have performed the play. Angela Sauer as Vanda and Patrick Zeller as Thomas, are, simply put, sublime.

Patrick Zeller and Angela Sauer in "Venus in Fur"
The play is a play within a play that is set in an audition studio in the Lower East side of New York City in the present. Thomas (Patrick Zeller) an intelligent, intense, erudite young playwright is getting ready to close the auditions he has been conducting all day in search of a perfect leading lady for his upcoming play that he has adapted from an obscure novel by a 19th-century author.

When the play begins, Thomas is on his cell phone speaking to his wife when Vanda, a ‘theatrical force of nature’ in the form of a very-late-for-her-audition-appointment actor, breezes into the room and immediately begins to audition for Thomas.  With the apologies and pleading by all, Vanda being late, and Thomas having closed the auditions for the night, Vanda says ” … as long as I’m here can’t you just conduct a short audition?”  That pleading ‘fatal line’ being crossed by one making a power bid, and the other acquiescing, sets in motion a fascinating story of the feminine mystique vs. the dominating male ego.

The following 95 minutes become a delicious, sexy, sizzling verbal dance of mutual seduction that keeps the audience riveted to the onstage action and the emotions between Vanda and Thomas, two formidable individuals that are superbly played Angela Sauer and Patrick Zeller.

Ms. Sauer attacks the role of Vanda in a bravura performance of an actor who knows all of the tricks of the acting trade. She uses them as weapons trained on the ego of playwright Thomas who now warms to the idea suggested by Vanda of him playing the part of the playwright-director during the audition.  At Vanda’s urging, Thomas is now intrigued by her suggestion that he direct his own provocative and potent play.  Ahh, the lure and the temptation proves too irresistible and Thomas willingly and eagerly succumbs, accepting the challenge of Vanda’s rules of engagement for the audition, as well as her pitch to just cast her now.

Patrick Zeller and Angela Sauer in
"Venus in Fur"
The on-stage chemistry between Ms. Sauer and Mr. Zeller is literally palpable. Their performances fully engage the audience who become fascinated by the push and pull of playwright Ives’ characters.  References to the origin of the title “Venus in Fur” also enliven the audiences’ fascination with the story.  But no more spoiler alerts; one must come and see this potent production for oneself.

As wonderful and mesmerizing as Sauer and Keller are, they don’t do it all by themselves. The safe harbor created by director Celona plays a key role in the overall success of this production. Celona’s seamless direction encourages the actors to stretch their creative muscles, which then takes the audience along on this intriguing and highly entertaining journey skirting around the kinky edges of bondage and domination.

The creative team led by director Celona includes the always inventive set designs of Emmy-winning scenic designer Jimmy Cuomo and the award-winning lighting designs of Moira Wilkie Whitaker. The costume designs of Julie Onken fit perfectly for the whirling dervish-like Ms. Sauer. Sound Designer Randy Hansen creates soundtracks that not only require precision but also a sensitive touch from technical board operator Karen Goodwin; Wigs, Hair, and Makeup designs by Desert Theatre League (DTL) multi-award-winner Lynda Shaeps are spot-on for Ms. Sauer and Mr. Zeller.

This splendid production performs at the CV REP Theatre in Rancho Mirage, CA through November 19, 2017, and runs 95 minutes without an intermission.  Don’t miss it!

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

PALM CANYON THEATRE STAGES A GLITTERING DISCO BEAT "PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT (THE MUSICAL)"

The Divas (Allegra Angelo, Sarah Hagar-Cox, Amber Morado) in
"Priscilla Queen of the Desert (The Musical). All photos by Paul Hayashi
The Palm Canyon Theatre of Palm Springs hit a home run Friday, October 27th, on opening night, with a glittering, kaleidoscopic stage full of twenty-five actors, dancers, and singers plus eye-popping costumes, and special effects with their current musical production “Priscilla Queen of the Desert (The Musical)".

Musicals are the specialty of the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) where they are sensationally produced and performed. PCT is now in its twenty-first year of providing quality entertainment to the Coachella Valley, presenting thirteen productions a year that include comedies, dramas, and special events as well as their signature musicals.

“Priscilla Queen of the Desert” (The Musical), has a libretto written by Australian film director Stephan Elliott and writer Allan Scott. The music and lyrics for this stage show is based on the 1994 Australian movie of the same name by Elliott and Scott. When “Priscilla” became a stage musical in 2006, original writers Elliott and Scott teamed up again and are credited with the libretto, but the music and lyrics sung by the twenty-five cast members are the courtesy of various pop song composers and lyricists. The sparkling production at PCT is directed by Scott Smith.

The libretto centers around two ‘drag queens’ (the talented actor/choreographer Anthony Nannini as Adan Whitely, and Nicholas Sloan as Tick Belrose), and Bernadette Bassenger, their transgender woman friend (played by Ron Coronado) who decide to take their ‘drag show act’ on the road to help out their friend Tick, who is seeking to reunite with his estranged son. It’s a heart-warming, uplifting road trip adventure into Australia’s Outback country in search for love and friendship, where all end up finding more than they ever could dream.

Tick has separated from his wife Marion (Chandra Smith) and has not seen his 12-year-old son Benji (nicely played by Ben Van Dijk) in eight years. Road trip adventures, be they movies or stage musicals, are always entertaining and are filled with twist and turns of the core story. “Priscilla”, is a search for understanding. For redemption, where families and friends come together to celebrate life in all its human dimensions.

PCT’s lavish production of “Priscilla” is an early Christmas gift for those who enjoy colorful, toe-tapping, eye appealing, theatrical entertainment fueled by an off-stage, driving Disco-beat orchestra, led Piano/Musical Director Steven Smith, and his talented, four-man orchestra of Dave Bronson on Guitar, Larry Holloway on Bass, John Pagels, on Drums, and Bob Scarano on Guitar who deliver the pulsating rhythmic sounds, that put the audience in the mood right from the get-go. The production features twenty-two songs and surprises that are cleverly folded into the musical numbers by director Scott Smith. The cast has lots of fun performing these moments. My favorite moment comes with the “MacArthur Park” number.

It’s always difficult to list all of the names of large cast productions. “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” has twenty-five members that make up this excellent ensemble cast, however, there always standouts in every show and they include: Anthony Nannini, who once again sets his professional, musical talent bar very high indeed; Ron Coronado, Nicholas Sloan, Larry Martin as Miss Understanding, the Divas: Allegra Angelo, Sarah Hagar-Cox, Amber Mora, young Ben Van Dyjk, and Luke Rainey as Bob. All offer solid support.

In the technical credits department led by director Smith, “Priscilla”, features a huge functional set designed by resident design wizard J.W. Layne that allows the 25-member cast to quickly and smoothly make their entrances and exits. And features the bus that plays a major role in the musical.

The Lighting design by J.W. Layne and Kay Van Zandt floods the stage with their clever designs in order to let the audience see and appreciate the more than 40 + amazing and colorful costume designs by Resident Designer Derik Shopinski and his army of assistants. Shopinski is also in charge of the wig designs (where does he get all that energy?). Props are the province of Gaige Griffin and staff, and this list completes the creative team. It takes a lot of creative artists to mount a production of this size, but the payoff is definitely worth the effort.

The production “Priscilla Queen of the Desert (the musical) is being performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, in Palm Springs and has already been extended one week and will now end its popular run on November 19, 2017. For reservations and ticket information call the box office at 760-323-5123. They sell out quickly, so don’t wait!
 
-- Jack Lyons
 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A POWERFUL AND RIVETING “OF MICE AND MEN” AT NORTH COAST REP

Front: Wallace Bruce, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper;
Back: John Greenleaf, Justin Lang, Max Macke, J. Stephen Brantley,
Jacob Sidney. All photos by Aaron Rumley.

John Steinbeck became the voice of America’s common folks.  He understood the hard-scrabble life and day-to-day existence of poor, uneducated, itinerant farmers and day laborers.  He worked the ranches and farms himself as a young man in California’s ‘salad bowl’ area of the Salinas Valley, growing up where he was born.

He also understood the plight of the 1930s dust bowl survivors: The “Okies” from Oklahoma, Arkansas and the Great Plains; men and women who lost their farms during the Great Depression, destined to become homeless and unwelcome once reaching the California border.  All these folks were doing was just trying to seek a better life for their families in the ‘golden state’ of California.

He knew them so well, that he received a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1940 for his poignant and powerful novel “The Grapes of Wrath”, and then went on to win a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 for his award winning novel and play “Of Mice and Men”.

“Of Mice and Men”, now on the stage of North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, is sensitively and intelligently directed by Richard Baird, who masterfully orchestrates his cast of eleven talented actors as they weave a mesmerizing obligato of lives seeking to escape from the desperation for some and an acceptance of situation by others, but never abandoning each character’s hope of achieving a small piece of the American Dream – a place of one’s own.

Jacob Sidney and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper 
The story, in short, is set in the fertile fields and ranches of Salinas California in 1937. Two day laborers/drifters, George Milton (a wonderful Jacob Sidney) and his friend, powerfully built, mentally-challenged, gentle giant of a man, Lennie Small (a terrific Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper) have been hired to help harvest the crops on a ranch run by a man called The Boss (Ted Barton). George is the brains of the two; he is quick-witted, sharp and very protective of Lennie who has a fatal flaw in his DNA – an obsessive fascination with anything soft and cuddly like small puppies and rabbits, or anything that feels soft to his powerful touch. Both Jacob Sidney and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper deliver very potent performances.

The life of itinerant laborers is a series of constant moves from one farm or ranch to the next; there is no sense of permanence. Each job and location presents challenges with the current workforce as new men arrive to work. New pecking order rules must be learned quickly, along with the dos and donts while working at the ranch. In this case, the word is don’t mess with the Boss’s son Curley (Wallace Bruce), a bullying, jealous, insecure, little rooster of a man who does very little work but is always giving orders to others. And especially avoid Curley’s young, pretty, new wife (Sierra Jolene).  She’s lonely and she flirts with the men as a way of being connected to the world and is saddled with an unhappy marriage to the jealous Curley. It’s not what she expected her new life to become. Ms. Jolene brings a fresh interpretation to her portrayal that is spot-on.

Laurence Brown, John Greenleaf, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper,
Candy, an aging old ranch hand who lost his left hand in a ranch accident, is wonderfully played by journeyman actor John Greenleaf.  Candy worries that he will be cast off once the Boss considers him a liability because he can’t pull a full day’s work in the fields. J. Stephen Brantley as Slim, the lead ranch hand, delivers a solid performance as the man the ranch hands look to as the voice of common sense and reason in the bunkhouse.

Justin Lang as ranch hand Whit and Max Macke as Carlson, the dour, unfeeling, pragmatic ranch hand who shoots Candy’s ailing old dog Sonny, are all wonderfully in the moment in their on-stage appearances.

Laurence Brown as Crooks, the African-American stable hand who sleeps in the barn, turns in an absolute gem of a performance. He’s the crusty, bitter, philosopher of the play.  He explains to Lennie how life takes many twists and turns and how everyone has to learn to navigate their fraught journeys. Lennie doesn’t understand what Crooks is telling him, but as long as Lennie is with George,” … everything will be okay.”

Laurence Brooks, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
Remember, the play is set in 1937 America. Some of the dialogue and situations ‘offended’ some people at the time, causing “Of Mice and Men” to be labeled a “problem play”. America has come a long way in societal relationships since 1937, however, there is still a lot of work left to do in the 21st century.

John Greenleaf, Jacob Sidney, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper
and Sierra Jolene.
There are so many creative and inventive directorial touches in this powerful production. The beauty of this splendid production lies in its ensemble actors and their pacing and their impeccable timing, which has been choreographed by director Baird, that keeps the audience riveted to the on-stage action. Baird has created a safe harbor for his actors that allows them to stretch beyond their normal creative boundaries.  No matter how many times you’ve seen a production “Of Mice and Men”, you will be blown away by this cast who deliver achingly sublime performances. One will be thinking about and this show and its message long after everyone has left the theatre.

The technical team led by director Baird at NCRT are always first rate, thanks to the imagination and skills sets of resident Set Designer Marty Burnett and Lighting Designer Matt Novotny. The costumes of Elisa Benzoni reek with authenticity including the dust and look of Salinas Valley ranch hands who are not fashion plates. One can almost smell the hay and the pungent odors of the stable where Crooks is relegated. The props design by Andrea Gutierrez nicely finishes the virtual total immersion feeling that the audience gets, which is almost like being in the bunkhouse along with the actors. The sound design of Aaron Rumley, and the hair and wigs design by Peter Herman, complete the technical team.

“Of Mice and Men” is another stellar production under the stewardship of artistic director David Ellenstein. The production performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre through November 12th.  Don’t miss it!

-- Jack Lyons





Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A NOISE WITHIN PRESENTS DICKENS' CLASSIC TALE OF LOVE AND WAR "A TALE OF TWO CITIES"

The Ensemble in ANW's "A Tale of Two Cities". Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Nineteenth century English novelist Charles Dickens is one of the English-speaking world’s greatest writers. His many novels validate his talent for creating memorable characters along with a gift for rich plots and the ability to keep the reader fully engaged from beginning to end.

“A Tale of Two Cities”, published in 1859, was one of the finest novels of its day and now, 200 years later, it appears on the stage of Pasadena’s classic theatre company, A Noise Within, as a bold, new, dramatic production from the pen of journeyman writer and play adapter Mike Poulton.

In 2016, Poulton debuted his version of Dickens’ classic story of love and redemption set against the tumultuous backdrop and events leading up to the French Revolution and the infamous ‘Reign of Terror’ at the Royale and Derngate theatre complex in Northampton, England.

Tavis Doucette (center) and the ensemble.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.
The success of the Northampton production must have caught the eyes and ears of Founding Producing Artistic Directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott.  The Elliott’s (husband and wife) have successfully navigated the challenging and daunting waters of presenting quality theatre in the traditional ‘rotating repertory format’ thanks to a dedicated and committed resident artists program that has become the backbone of the organization over the last twenty-six years.

“A Tale of Two Cities”, crisply directed by the Elliotts’, is one of Dickens’ sweeping stories that is not staged very often.  The core story is often mistakenly confused by audiences, as the musical “Les Miserables”, due to the similar rebellion sequences.  ‘Two Cities’ deals with the 1789 French Revolution in Paris, while ‘Les Miz’ takes place in the south of France in the city of Digne, in 1815 and is known as the ‘Student Rebellion’.

Boiling Dickens’ large source material novel down to a two-hour stage production became a herculean process for writer Poulton.  It is a richly plotted tale of love and redemption whose actions cross back and forth between London and the French capitol of Paris.  There have been plays and movies based on the French Revolution over the years, some (25 years back) six film versions and six TV versions, among a few theatrical productions have mounted productions. For example, Frank Wildhorn’s stage musical production “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, was seen by LA audiences some seventeen years ago. But it’s hard to beat the 1935 MGM movie starring Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton when it comes to capturing a sweeping, large canvas story like “A Tale of Two Cities”.

The ensemble, with Kasey Mahaffy (left) and
Emily Goss in foreground.
Photo by Craig Schwartz. 
In short, “A Tale of Two Cities” tells the story of French doctor Manette (Nicholas Hormann) and his daughter Lucie (Emily Goss), and Lucie’s French-born husband Charles Darnay (Tavis Doucette), a former French Aristocrat who renounced his title and moved to England. Darnay’s friend and lawyer Sydney Carton (Frederick Stuart), as it happens, harbors a secret unrequited love for Lucie, and is determined to help her and his friend Darnay in any way he can.

In France the revolution and its supporters cast a wide net in an effort to punish the hated aristocrats. When Darnay receives word in London that a friend is in trouble with the rebels and their revolutionary court and trials, he returns to Paris to help and is arrested and put on trial as a traitor. The main accuser against him Madame Defarge (Abby Craden) is determined that Darnay must die, because his family killed members of her family; she wants an eye for an eye. These are the main characters that propel the narrative forward. It may appear as a somewhat dated dramatic piece, but the core values of two hundred years ago can still resonate with 21st century audiences, especially when it comes to understanding today’s toxic politics.

Frederick Stuart (Sydney Carton).
Photo by Craig Schwartz.
There are twenty-three performers, some of whom play multiple roles in this fine ensemble production. Unfortunately, there is not enough space to list everyone.  However, there are always standouts. Emily Goss renders a small but integral role with passion and empathy as Lucie. Goss goes from a wonderful, enchanting Muriel in ANW’s recent production “Ah Wilderness! to a frightened, sympathetic Lucie  in ‘Two Cities’.

Abby Creden, as the villainous Madame Defarge, spits out her bilious feelings and talk of revenge in whiplashing dialogue.  She controls whose head is to leave their shoulders, and who is to be spared. That’s too much power to be left to a single avenging person. Tavis Doucette as Darnay plays to the stoic and steadfast traits that make him a sympathetic character and a loyal friend of Sydney Carton. Frederick Stuart, as Carton, is the real hero of this tale of two cities, giving his last full measure of devotion to Lucie and Darnay.  Stuart delivers a finely judged performance as Sydney Carton.

Solid support comes from Nicholas Hormann, Trisha Miller, Jeremy Rabb, and Geoff Elliott.  The production is well paced and neatly choreographed for such as large company. But I am puzzled by the directors’ decisions to have the French characters speak with English cockney accents.  It’s natural for the cockney-accented roles for English speaking characters, but it’s a bit confusing to have people from two different countries sound alike when delivering dialogue, n’est-ce pas?

In the technical department, the creative team led by the Elliotts has a functional set and performing area designed by Fred Kinney, with lighting design by Ken Booth, and original Music Composition and Sound Design by Robert Oriol.

The costumes designed by Jenny Foldenauer are spot-on and appropriate for the period for both the aristocrats and the rebelling mobs and peasants.

“A Tale of Two Cities” is a splendid production that runs in repertory through November 19th. The other two productions also running in repertory are: “The Mad Woman of Chaillot” through November 11th, and G.B. Shaw’s “Mrs. Warrens Profession”, through November 18th. Don’t miss any of the three!
--Jack Lyons

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A NOISE WITHIN'S "MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION" PROVES THAT G.B. SHAW IS ALIVE, WELL, AND STILL RELEVANT IN AMERICA TODAY

 Erika Soto as Vivie Warren, Adam Faison as Frank Gardner.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.

George Bernard Shaw was an irascible, prickly Irish playwright, author, essayist, and critic of everything that English Victorian society held dear. He relished poking his fingers into their hypocritical eyes when it came to politics and the plight of English and Irish women held hostage by centuries of patriarchy; and he did it with his brilliant plays, novels, and essays.

One could even make a case for Shaw being the first ‘male feminist’ and recognized literary giant to champion the emerging women’s movement of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries in the United Kingdom and America.

Pasadena’s A Noise Within theatre company, is staging a provocative and spirited comedy production of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, a witty play about the ‘world’s oldest profession’, or is it about something else that is masquerading for a more insidious subject matter discussion: the misogyny of men in a patriarchal society who harbor the fear of being exposed for their shortcomings? This is a fact that women have known since this planet first exploded, along with the Divine Right of Kings rule of law, and other “fake news”.

The play, crisply directed by Michael Michetti, was written in 1893, but didn’t see a stage presentation until some nine years later, courtesy of the puritan nature of Victorian society that was ‘offended’ by the clarity and prescience of Shaw’s writing.  When the play was first staged in New York City in 1905, the entire cast was arrested for public indecency; shades of stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce and the Chicago police in 1962 when he was arrested during a performance on obscenities charges. Shaw, however, fared much better than Bruce.


Judith Scott as Kitty Warren, Adam Faison as Frank Gardner.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.

The story, set in Victorian England centers on the problematic relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren (Judith Scott) and her daughter Vivie (Erika Soto), a recent Cambridge University Honors graduate. Vivie hasn’t seen her mother in years.  She’s a victim of the English Public-School system where children of wealthy parents are sent off to boarding schools to be raised by teachers and then by academics in the Universities.

There are echoes in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession”, of many culture-based mother-daughter film stories like “Mildred Pierce”,” Now Voyager”, “Separate Tables”, and others that deal with conflicts and secrets not shared by either the mother or the daughter.  “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is one of the earliest of these plotlines.

Kitty Warren is a former prostitute made wealthy by becoming a Madame and a co-owner – with Sir George Crofts (Jeremy Rabb) - of a string of upper-class brothels located in the great cities of Europe. Vivie has been the beneficiary of Kitty’s business success. Vivie is pragmatic, intelligent, independent, and dedicated to being her own person,  not an easy road to travel for a young single woman in turn of the century England.  And, she has no knowledge of how Kitty obtained her wealth.  In Act I, she is too busy explaining to her mother how she intends to live her life, becoming an independent woman, who views Kitty as unfeeling and a bit rough-around-the edges, compared to her upper-class friends at Cambridge.

Erika Soto as Vivie Warren, Adam Faison as Frank Gardner.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.
In the meantime, Vivie has caught the eye of Frank Gardner (Adam Faison), son of the local Vicar (Martin Kildare).  Frank is an entitlement-oriented, boring young man in search of a rich woman as his meal ticket through life. He thinks Vivie is that worthy candidate. Kitty’s acquaintance, Mr. Praed (Peter James Smith), is a peacemaker, always around to soothe the ruffled feathers of Kitty when it comes to her relationship with Vivie.

Act I belongs to Vivie and Shaw concerning life in Victorian England and constantly reminds one of the plight of women, either as a member of the working poor, or as a middle-class married woman.

In Act II, the fireworks begin. In frustration, Vivie confronts her mother with why isn’t there a father in her life, why are there no cousins or relatives, just her mother’s male friends?  These questions, and others, however, are addressed in what some critics and audiences describe as a no-holds barred, verbal battle royale between Kitty and Vivie, that takes place when the true nature of Kitty’s hidden profession is revealed, and Vivie learns that her high-end education has been funded by it. What follows is a bittersweet resolution, but no spoiler alerts here. Let’s just say that it’s a treat to watch these two talented women perform their magic.

Adam Faison as Frank Gardner, Judith Scott
as Kitty Warren. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
The actors in this impressive ensemble production render finely judged performances and are always in their moments. That being said, the power of Shaw’s dramedy, none-the-less, is embodied in the characters of Kitty and Vivie. Both Ms. Scott and Ms. Soto deliver potent memorable performances. One can easily relate to the emotions of both women when they make their life altering choices. Victorian men, however, were rarely forced by society to wrestle with difficult choices like women. The pity is most of the things Shaw railed against over a 100 years ago are sadly still issues to this day; American politics is still mired in a toxic swamp of inequality and special interests.

The technical credits at A Noise Within are always first-rate. The team led by director Michetti features a space set design which looks good from the audience’s POV, but causes some upstage right and left audio dead spots when actors are speaking with their backs to the audience (it should be an easy fix). The lighting design by Jaymi Lee Smith opts for a general overall illumination level and employs spots when called for the in the more dramatic moments in the play.

The costumes designed by Sara Ryung Clement are spot-on for the ladies, but having lived in England for three years, I always wore a jacket or windbreaker whenever I went outside. Frank looked half-naked to me when he went outside to hunt or shoot in a shirt, cap, and trousers. I kept looking at his knees to see if they were shaking from the bone-chilling air.  Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design works for everyone. She’s a welcome addition who did yeoman duty as North Coast Repertory Company’s resident sound designer in Solana Beach for several years.

“Mrs. Warren’s Profession” is another splendid production from A Noise Within theatre.  The comedy/drama performs in repertory through November 18, 2017.  It’s a winner, don't miss it.

--Jack Lyons