INsiders: Tale of Two Cities

The start of my third year with this prestigious group turned out to be one of the best meetings yet, much more fun than one would expect in a lecture about a famous and often-discussed book/play/story.
First, a little background: The INsiders is a discussion group that meets during the run of each play at A Noise Within (not counting the annual A Christmas Carol). Some people liken it to an old-fashioned salon—a term invented in 16th Century Italy, but that’s another story—where people gathered to banter about the art of the day, usually literature and poetry. For those who don’t know, A Noise Within is a relatively famous theater company in Pasadena, known for being a tiny powerhouse amongst the giants of the stage world. The theater is easily accessible, as it is right off the 210 freeway, as well as being directly at a stop of the Metro Gold Line light-rail train.
Every INsiders gathering has two guests, one a distinguished scholar who usually teaches the work being discussed, the other an actor involved in the production. At this past Tuesday’s meeting the acting guest was Emily Goss, who portrays Lucie. She’s one of the few actors at A Noise Within whom I was familiar with before seeing her on the stage here. In this episode of the You Tube series Princess Rap Battle, she played Goldilocks (behind Cinderella, not the one in red), but with her newly brown/red hair she no longer fits that role.
The scholarly guest was Dr. Lana L. Dalley, a professor of English Lit at Cal State Fullerton. Far from the stereotype of a stodgy academic in tweed, she was instantly notable for her short blonde hair and script tattoo on her right arm; when asked about it later, she admitted it read “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress,” which is the first line from Middlemarch, by George Eliot. She’s also an X-Files fan, as we’ll see later.

Armed with computer slides that were both amusing and educational, Dr. Dalley regaled us for the next two hours with little-known tidbits on the life of Charles Dickens, as well as placing his life and works into context. The first note that struck me was the reveal of Dickens World! Yes, an amusement park was built around his novels, with such features as a water ride, haunted house, and animatronic show. Even though I would have never thought to go, I’m disappointed I won’t have the chance, as it has since closed down.
Unlike most famous authors, Dickens never wanted to be a writer. Like Shakespeare, he was more interested in acting, but missed his first audition due to sickness. He did eventually work on the stage, but ended up writing to make money, eventually becoming so famous that at the height of his popularity he did tours around England as well as America, and was reportedly quite the diva about it. He even had a rider that would put most rock stars to shame.
One of the most intriguing tidbits for me was his friendship and collaboration with Wilkie Collins, a vastly underrated author whose most famous works were The Woman in White and The Moonstone, some of the best early British mysteries.
At one point Dr. Dalley showed movie posters of some of Dickens’ works, the first being a recent Bleak House production starring Gillian Anderson. . . except she called her “Scully.” Anyone who can reference The X-Files during a English Lit lecture is more than okay in my book.
The lecture ended on a fun note about Tale of Two Cities having the first ever mention of potato chips:
“Hunger rattled its dry bones among the roasting chestnuts in the turned cylinder; Hunger was shred into atomics in every farthing porringer of husky chips of potato, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”
I don’t know how oil can be reluctant, but it sounds awesome. I might argue, though, that since fries are called chips in England, this isn’t so much about potato chips as French fries, which I love a thousand times more, but I digress.
It felt like there wasn’t as much time for questions as usual, but since Dr. Dalley let us interrupt her whenever we wanted, there wasn’t much left to ask. The lecture was so entertaining that poor Emily spent most of the time as a fellow listener, but did get to bring some insights into her portrayal of Lucie.

If I’ve piqued your interest in attending, here are the remaining dates for the 2017/18 season:
The Madwoman of Chaillot | Oct. 24, 2017
Mrs. Warren’s Profession | Nov. 21, 2017
Henry V | Feb. 27, 2018
A Raisin in the Sun | March 27, 2018
Noises Off | Apr. 24, 2018

In addition to the guests and discussion, you get refreshments—cookies and strawberries are the favorites—and if you arrive early you can join a lot of the attendees for dinner beforehand, usually Chinese food (I go to the burger joint).
Fair warning: it does cost, though it counts as a tax-deductible donation. For more info, contact Alicia Green, the Director of Education & Community Outreach, at education@anoisewithin.org or call 626-356-3104. (Don’t be scared, she’s a sweetie.)

;o)

Theater Review: Romeo and Juliet at A Noise Within

On a typically warm SoCal Sunday afternoon I jumped onto a frigidly air-conditioned bus for the seven-minute jaunt to the Eastern Pasadena locale of the theater company known as A Noise Within. But as always my first stop was Hook Burger, though I was in a time dilemma: I wasn’t hungry yet at 1:30PM, but the play wouldn’t be done till 4:30, which meant my stomach would be gnawing at me around intermission time. So I did the only logical thing: rather than having a burger that I wasn’t in the mood for yet, I ordered an orange cream float, because everyone has room for ice cream, right? I even found out I can have it to go, which sounded weird but turned out easier than I anticipated, in a regular fancy-coffee-style cup with me adding the orange cream soda whenever needed through the hole in the dome on top.
Once inside the stylish 1960’s building housing the theater, I spent some time perusing the display of past productions, as next year is the company’s 25th anniversary and they want the fans to play a part in choosing next year’s shows. That wasted enough time for me to finish my dessert-first-or-only meal before heading down to my seat. Once comfortably ensconced, I took in the stage, which featured a graffiti backdrop with similarly decorated dumpsters. More to the point, the actors were on stage, walking around, talking to each other, as though psyching themselves up. In my head I joked that they were going to form in a circle and put their hands in for “Break!” only to find them actually doing it!
Okay, on to Romeo and Juliet, no doubt the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays, along with Hamlet; star-crossed lovers and all that. In the lobby I’d seen plenty of teens, so I wondered just how surprised they would be to find the play isn’t just the love affair that is emphasized in most high school English classes, no doubt in order to get the students to pay more attention.
Unlike people I’ve talked to who are fascinated by every rendition of the Queen Mab soliloquy, I’ve never thought of it as that special. . . until Rafael Goldstein did it here. I can’t even tell you why it got to me this time, only that it did, at least enough for me to remember it as one of the highlights.
Just about every Shakespeare piece has some music to it, in this case the party at the Capulets, where Romeo sneaks in and first sees Juliet. The difference in this production was the inclusion of a live violinist up in what would later become Juliet’s window (don’t get me started on the “balcony” thing). There’s also enough banging on the dumpsters during the fight scenes to remind me of Stomp.
I’ve seen Robinson Dean in plenty of productions here, as well as being the translator for Antigone, but this is my first time watching him do comedy, shuffling about barefoot like a ditzy old man; his exclamation of “Holy Saint Francis!” had me metaphorically rolling on the floor. Lacy Capulet, played by company regular Jill Hill, brought some levity as well as heavy angst to the small role, looking like a Beverly Hills matron/airhead in her gold boots while smoking and drinking before letting it all out when she wanted Romeo dead for killing her nephew Tybalt.
But if I had to single out one actor, it would be June Carryl, whom at the beginning shows a barely controlled rage as the Prince—I love how this company has a tradition of casting women in male roles, as though thumbing their nose at Shakespeare’s time, when all the actors were men—and then delivering a hilarious performance as the nurse, particularly when she exasperates Juliet by claiming she’s too out of breath to tell the news. I wish I could remember her turn on Castle, but I’ll sure be on the lookout for her name from now on. Also switching genders was Charlotte Gulezian as a tomboyish Benvolio, who quickly made me forget the character was supposed to be male, so natural was she.
If I had one small quibble it would be with Will Bradley in the male lead. Let’s face it, Romeo is well described as the world’s first Emo, so there’s plenty of room to ham things up. Still, I thought that in this performance he might have taken it too far; having seen it so many times, this is the first time I really didn’t like Romeo, thought he was a selfish jerk more than just a guy carried away by love. Will was so excellent in Figaro, but that was a farce, where there’s no limit to the ham, cheese, and relish you can stuff in that acting sandwich, but here I would have appreciated just a touch more restraint. Also leaving tooth marks on the scenery was Alan Blumenfeld as Capulet, but whether being jovial at the party or angry during the fights scenes and his disagreement with Juliet, it seemed completely in character.
I almost hate to leave out Juliet, because it’s not that I had any problem with Donnla Hughes’ portrayal. I suppose because some of the other actors were so amazing, she didn’t register as much with me, or perhaps as the voice of reason she didn’t get as much opportunity to shine.
As for the set, I don’t think the graffiti-clad alleyway did anything for me; not worse, but not better. Same for their clothes, though Romeo in a hoodie was as perfect as possible. What was strange was seeing the actors hanging around the stage, both in the wings and on the steps around the stage, almost part of the audience, watching but not part of it, seeing things their characters didn’t. Have to admit it was a little distracting.
The dumpsters, on the other hand, might be considered their own characters. They are used to full effect, like in the scene with the apothecary, where he’s inside the usually-smelly rolling box, wearing a mask so we don’t see it’s same actor as Mercutio. There’s plenty of acrobatics on them, with some of the actors lying on them as they watch the action, banging for sound effect. At one point Juliet is climbing back to her window and hangs with her foot on the narrow side protrusion, a precarious position that had me fearing for her safety. Even more so was when the dumpster was used to hold her supposedly dead body at the end, though fortunately for her comfort they added a mattress. Since it’s impossible to gauge how wide the thing is from the audience, I was again distracted by the thought she might fall off, more than doubly so when Romeo joined her up there. The paper lanterns didn’t help the depth perception either, and made the scene kinda eerie, yet also produced a beautiful light as Juliet lies there. And then there’s Paris lying on the floor for what seemed like forever. . .
Whooo! Deep breath as the light come up. As usual I waited while most people scooted out, then glanced at the nextrip app and saw that my bus was leaving in two minutes! Dashing up the stairs, which none of my doctors recommend, I dodge through the crowd like a running back, out the back door, along the small tree-lined walkway between the condos and the construction site, and into the cavernous bus station under the parking structure and light-rail station. Made it just as the bus was pulling in! Endorphins flow!

Bonus coverage!
Last night was the meeting of the INsiders, a group under the auspices of A Noise Within who gather to discuss the plays being done, and of course this was Romeo and Juliet night. That was why I waited to write this review even though I saw the production last week. We were joined by Miranda Johnson-Haddad, who is a renown Shakespearean expert, and Amir Abdullah, who brought Paris to life. . . and death.
But first I had to go to Hook Burger of course, for my customary Prime Burger plain with cheese and bacon, with an orange cream soda to wash it all down. It only helped that they had sent me a coupon for a free burger in the mail, and I went early enough not to worry about being late to the meeting. In fact I had enough time to walk down the block to the really long strip mall, where I bypassed Jamba to hit up Baskin Robbins, finding to my amazement they had a bucket of orange sherbet open for business! I have not seen orange available for at least five years, so it felt like this was a night where nothing could go wrong, and to hell with tempting fate!
Hard to remember all the topics that were covered once things got started, but with this being such a popular play there was plenty to discuss, even for me; in the past I’ve felt left out when I didn’t know the production all that well. My main question for Amir was: considering the setting and costumes, was there any discussion to completely modernize and set the play in contemporary times? He admitted they had talked about it, and he joked that he would have liked to pull out his cell phone when he’s asked the time, but they ultimately decided against it, which I think was the right call for two reasons. First and foremost, the tragedy hinges on Romeo not getting the news that Juliet’s faking her death, with the Black Plague as an excuse for the messenger not getting the job done. In modern times it would have simply taken an email, and would have been especially timely, since Romeo would have heard about Juliet’s death on Facebook or Twitter. The second reason was that even if modern doctors were fooled by the potion simulating Juliet’s death. . . autopsy! Yikes!
One point that I forgot to bring up was that this is not just an infatuation between teens, but an infatuation between RICH teens. Had they been peasants, no one would have cared, and all the deaths wouldn’t have happened. In fact, poor teens probably wouldn’t have reacted that way anyhow; they had work to do.
{Hmmmm, I just remembered there were a couple of times when Miranda said, “What’s discussed in this room stays in this room.” Oopsie. . .}

;o)

Theater Review: Antigone at A Noise Within

A semi-honest agent: “This could be big for your career, I don’t mind lying.”

It’s become a running gag that whenever I go to see theater it’s over 100 degrees; unfortunately Mother Nature is the only one laughing. As always I’m in my explorer hat, with the flap down the back, necessary because I get sunburned on the back of my neck after about ten seconds, but luckily the bus stop is shaded and I can take it off. . . only to burn my fingers with how hot it has become just crossing the street. And of course the air conditioning on the bus is ice-cold in comparison. At least the driver is cheery.
On the way north up Rosemead Blvd. there’s the Greek church once again holding GreekFest! Why did no one tell me? Your PR guys suck. Okay, I’m not about to go in this heat, but I’ve had fun there before, might have handled a few minutes of looking for archaeology souvenirs. . . as in t-shirts of the Acropolis, not actual artifacts; don’t buy them, they fund terrorists.
Off the bus into the cavernous parking lot cum transportation station, where I simply have to cross one access road and then walk a somewhat shady path for about ten seconds to get to the back door of A Noise Within.  Yes, so lucky that an excellent theater company is located where all I have to do is cross the street from my apartment, catch a bus for 5-10 minutes (depending on traffic), and walk for fifteen seconds.
Since I’m at the mercy of the bus schedules I’m early as always, so I hunker down by a hidden couch next to the balcony entrance and peruse the program, then my phone. I’m probably the only person who actually turns off their phone before being told, though this time there’s a beautiful female voice telling you to do so before the show begins; gotta find out who that is.
Also gotta remember next time to take some photos of this unusual yet intriguing building. I have no idea if they maintained the original design of the lobby, but since it fits with the scheme of the exterior, I’m giving it a doubtful benefit. Research tells me it used to be the Stuart Pharmaceutical Building, a midcentury modern landmark designed by architect Edward Durell Stone; for you architecture buffs, here’s a small article on the building’s history until I can photographically dazzle you next time.
As you approach the staircase going down into the theater—I took the elevator—there’s a sign saying that this season of theater works is dedicated to Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, which became a lot less surprising when in the above-mentioned research I found he was instrumental in bringing the company to its new home, after years in Glendale.
Okay, down in my usual aisle seat and chatting with the woman seated next to me while trying not to listen to the inane patter of some rich matrons behind me. To my surprise, Glen Miller is the house music as we’re waiting for the play to start; to everyone’s shock, I named those tunes: Little Brown Jug and String of Pearls.
Okay, on to the play, or I should say the first preview of the play. In the publicity it’s said this is the first authorized translation from the modern French version of Sophocles’ classic by Jean Anouilh, so that’s cool. The basic plot is that in Ancient Greece it was important that a body be buried so their soul can be free or some such; there has never been a time in human history when a majority of people didn’t believe in something silly, goes the famous quote. And said rites have to be done by a woman. More specific to this play, two brothers were in a war to rule Thebes and killed each other—I picture a Wild West shootout—leaving Creon—who I think is their uncle, but with Oedipus as part of the family, who knows?—as king. He kinda arbitrarily decides that one of the brothers should be thought of as a hero and the other a villain, and so declares that the bad guy should not be buried, just left there to stink up the place until the scavengers harvest him. Antigone, sister of the two as well as daughter of Oedipus, thinks her uncle is being a meanie and goes out in the middle of the night to bury her brother anyway, despite knowing she’ll be put to death for it.
We start with a Greek chorus of one, a lady dressed in a style that makes me think of the 50s, but since when do I know anything about fashion? With great humor and plenty of gravitas—not at the same time—she tells us what’s up, even introduces the characters as the actors stand still on stage. Since this isn’t a particularly famous play with the general public, it seems like a good idea.
Creon is dressed in a business suit, which completely fits the type of ruler he is. Other than a few pieces of broken temple masonry on stage, there’s no attempt to make it feel like it takes place in Ancient Greece; there’s a radio and bombs going off, so it’s definitely a modern setting. Since this is a translation of the French version which was written in the 1940s, all this makes sense, but only if you think about it. . . or don’t bother to think about it.
The most colorful of the characters is the sentry, dressed in an overdone army uniform, not exactly ceremonial but not what anyone on duty would wear either; in fact he looks more like General McArthur than any mere soldier or guard. His clipped speech and manner is over the top and also reminiscent of WW2 movies, done for comedy, which worked for me.
Without revealing any more of the plot, I have to sat this was pretty intense and discomforting, but then that’s what tragedy’s supposed to be. The hardest part was adjusting expectations; people had different belief systems thousands of years ago, and things that seem inconsequential to us were life and death to them. Even knowing that, it was still tremendously difficult to follow along as to why certain things were so important, especially to Antigone and Creon.
At some points it felt like Antigone had a death wish, or perhaps wants to be a martyr; she basically forces Creon to put her to death. Seems like a really high price to pay just to throw some dirt over a dead body. But there’s a director’s note in the program that made this better for me: “None of us here tonight believes that Antigone’s brother will never rest until she throws some dirt on the corpse. Yet we listen, and we believe in her, although she neither knows nor cares what we believe.”
There’s quite a few philosophical ramblings between Antigone and Creon, such as civil disobedience, the nature of happiness, and the burden of being in charge; considering how tyrannical Creon becomes, that’s definitely not out of place here. There’s a line toward the end that I perversely enjoyed, maybe too much: “They will rot well.” But the best moment for me was when Creon made an Oedipus joke about the famous tragic figure being called a certain insult that actually, unlike everyone else, does fit him; I was the only one who laughed. (In case you didn’t get that, it’s frequently shortened to mofo.)
With all that said, the acting was as superb as usual whenever I see this company. The main character basically has to carry the play, and Emily James does so without any unnecessary flash or ego, yet still enjoying the hell out of her rare impassioned lines. Eric Curtis Johnson as Creon—whom I saw in Dance of Death but didn’t come close to recognizing—brought an air of pomposity, though thankfully not too much, to a character who is by turns sympathetic and hated. Lorna Raver as the maid did a good job of lightening the mood at the beginning, where she starts off the play alone for a good five minutes. As mentioned before, the guard—as thespian’d by Stephen Weingartner—also brought some much needed comic relief to the heaviness and ultimate despair inherit in the work. The direction was sparse, which is not strange considering the stage is never changed, and I think the play is better for it. My fave part of the staging is the inclusion of a small water source behind some ruins, just big enough to dip some fingers and wet your face, but with a light positioned perfectly to see the reflection of small shimmering waves on the whiteness.
Since it had worked for me before, I had skipped lunch in favor of some snacks before the two o’clock show, so by the time we were let out around four I was hungry but not starving. This all works out because across the street is Hook Burger, which has rapidly become my second fave after In-N-Out. . . plus they have bacon! Rather than having girls bring your food to the table they have switched to a pager coaster system, which was a shame because I enjoyed talking to those ladies. As I finally get to munch I check the app and find my bus is coming in 5 minutes, with the next one an hour later. So with a rueful gesture at having to leave the air conditioning, I wrap my half-burger up and stuff it in my pocket—I love these shorts, so many pockets!—and swig from the bottle of orange cream soda as I hustle across the street to the bus stop, trying to ignore the even more incredibly intense heat. The orange drink is proving ineffective in regulating my temperature, though it sure brings it taste-wise.
When I got home I ate the second half of the burger while watching a documentary on Mayan glyphs on Netflix.
;o)