Los Angeles Theater Review: TWELFTH NIGHT, OR WHAT YOU WILL (A Noise Within in Pasadena)

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by Tony Frankel on November 2, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

A BIGGER NOISE NEEDS TO BE MADE WITHIN

A Noise Within (ANW), one of the nation’s leading classical repertory theatre companies, has done the unimaginable: after 19 seasons in a Masonic building in Glendale, they not only amassed enough donations to build a permanent home in Pasadena, but they started their 20th season without a break. If you know anything about the politics of a non-profit artistic corporation, then this is a testament to all involved. Naturally, in a new theatre, there will be some bugs that need to be worked out, such as issues with sound, but if you were an established ensemble-based theatre company that successfully raised nearly $13.5 million (in a recession, no less!), and transformed an historical building into a new theatre that doubles the seating capacity of your old space, what would be the number one priority?

Your first production.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

Yes, it is asking the unimaginable to create a theatre experience that will match a more impressive and ambitious space right off the bat. But now that they have stepped up a notch into their new dream space, the challenge for founders and artistic directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliot and Geoff Elliot will be to not just create productions that fit that space, but to step up their vision of what this estimable company is truly capable of creating – especially in how they stage and cast productions.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

Based on their first outing, Shakespeare’s highly accessible comedy Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, we will have to wait while ANW finds their footing and truly reaches their potential. The evening was fair – nay, commendable in a few parts – but it was far from electrifying. Yes, there were some glorious performances and a spirited interpretation that transports us to 1950’s Cuba (more for dancing than character construction), but the mostly miscast roles, an insufficiency of laughs (this is, after all, a comedy) and the inability to fill this new theatre with ingenious set and sound designs kept the Bard as grounded as democracy in Cuba.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

It was a surprise, knowing how much time that the Elliotts were putting into the nuts and bolts of their new theatre that they managed to direct (Julia) and star in a show (Geoff) right out of the gate. Mr. Elliot positively sparkles as Malvolio, one of the most interesting persons in the play, but Ms. Elliot, who mildly spiced up the show with a Cuban flavor, did not excavate the jesting, slapstick, and farce from this quarry of comedic possibilities: one bit which had three eavesdroppers navigate around rolling palm trees fell particularly flat while another bit with the sprinkling of holy water started off funny and quickly disintegrated into redundancy.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe Cuban theme allowed for some clever interpretations of the original text, such as when Feste, a clown pretending to be a doctor, visits Malvolio in prison, but instead of having the jester act as a pompous physician, Ms. Elliot has him become a Cuban witch doctor while, behind him, a chorus of dancers perform a Santeria ceremony. Clever? Yes. But still not funny. More importantly, scenes such as this rendered the text incongruous to the setting, which is why the updating of Shakespeare is a tenuous proposal.

Based on two supremely better co-directed efforts from last season, Measure For Measure and Great Expectations, it appears that Ms. Elliot directs better when teaming up with her husband. Her solo effort, The Chairs, was well-staged, but also missed its comic potential. Was Michael Michetti, who directed The hysterical Comedy of Errors at ANW, not available? Is Ms. Elliot, whose stylistic choices trump substance, better at running a company than directing a show?

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelPlus, who else can we point to but Ms. Elliot for the egregious errors in casting? Feste (a.k.a. Clown) and Fabian are both servants to Olivia (the stunning Abby Craden), so it makes sense within the tropical setting to cast black actors, but Anthony Mark Barrow and Max Lawrence are so similar in stature and nature that they might as well have been the separated twins in this story. It didn’t help that all vestiges of Feste (Barrow) as jester were removed and he became no more than a cohort to Toby and Aguecheek (Apollo Dukakis and Jeremy Rabb). The bottom line is that all three lacked character specificity and comic timing. Truly, the one thing that kept the evening from being irritatingly unsatisfactory was some of the individual performances, including that ever-reliable powerhouse of talent Deborah Strang as the minx, Maria, Angela Gulner as the cross-dressed Viola, and that master classicist with the mellifluous, resonant voice, Mr. Elliot. But even with these, the time has come for ANW to shake up their core ensemble and broaden their choices.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe sound (designed by Doug Newell and Zipline Sound) was a huge disappointment, proving that it is going to take one of three things to salvage the volume issues: either more money will have to be spent on the acoustical design or the unmiked actors will have to project as if they were playing at The Elizabethan Globe Theatre or defeat can be admitted by miking those 21st Century actors who no longer see diction and projection as tools just as important as motivation. The new theatre really is not that large a space, so it made no sense why some of the actors could not be heard when their backs were turned or when they were far upstage, unless they are simply not enunciating old-school style. It has been mentioned in previous reviews that the sound in the old space was inconsistent, but it’s maddening that this has not been resolved. One comment heard after the show was, “Well, this is Shakespeare. Naturally, dialogue will be lost.” This is only a guess, but the Royal Shakespeare Company may disagree with that assessment. Another patron was upset that she could not hear Ms. Eliott’s pre-curtain speech while there are only seven rows of seats.

A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

It’s going to be a challenge to have sets on this thrust stage that can accommodate all sight-lines. One hopes that future designers will be able to do more than place a desk or a lounge chair to represent a room. There was no set to speak of for Twelfth Night, but suffice it to say that Cuba looked like a Junior High-School production of South Pacific. We know that scenic designer Kurt Boetcher is up to the task, so why A Noise Within presents Twelfth Night Or What You Will – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankelwas he limited in his design? (Boetcher’s set for Take Me Out, at the Celebration Theatre, imaginatively turned an unwieldy space into what felt like a brand new theatre.) In sharp contrast, Angela Balogh Calin appeared to have all the fun with her spectacular costumes.

Instead of designing a black box theater that can be reformulated for each production, ANW has kept a thrust stage, except this time it is curved rather than boxy. The seats located audience-right directly face the front of the stage, which means we have to turn our heads in order to see the action further upstage. Since the seats will undoubtedly not be angled, one hopes that the majority of productions will be placed down front center. A special mention to lighting designer Ken Booth, who kept the lighting edges crisp in the theater stairways, which are used for exits and entrances.

Companies such as A Noise Within that move to a larger space must face the challenge of being held to a higher standard, for they are the torch-bearers for struggling companies still searching for their own homes; they are the front runner to the next generation of theatre artists. The hope is that Twelfth Night was merely a glitch as a result of this transition.  It is time for ANW to set its aims higher.

photos of the theater by Michael Gustadt
photos of the production by Craig Schwartz

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will
A Noise Within
3352 E Foothill Blvd in Pasadena
ends on December 16, 2011
for tickets, call 626.356.3100 visit A Noise Within

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