Theater review: 'Twelfth Night' at A Noise Within
It’s official: Pasadena has become a hub for some of Southern California’s most fetching playhouses.
The doyenne, of course, is the Pasadena Playhouse, which has earned the right to be called the State Theater of California by the beauty of its architecture. Then there’s the compact yet deluxe Boston Court Performing Arts Center, which makes all the other 99-seat-or-less venues in town look like poor relations. And now A Noise Within, the classical repertory company celebrating its 20th anniversary this season, has moved from a former Masonic temple in Glendale to spacious new digs on East Foothill Boulevard.
This impressive feat of institutional growth was duly celebrated Saturday with ANW’s inaugural opening-night gala. Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who shares the title of founder and artistic director with her husband, Geoff Elliott, greeted her fancily attired patrons before the start of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, or What You Will” by welcoming everyone to their new home.
It was indeed a family affair. But before I say a word about the production, directed by Rodriguez-Elliott and featuring Elliott as Malvolio, let me congratulate the organization’s leaders not just for accomplishing their dream but by doing so in a way that has forged a vital community out of a shared love of classical theater.
Subscribers to ANW are some of the most loyal advocates I’ve encountered in the region, and there’s every reason to hope that the next 20 years in the company’s history will be even richer artistically. As Virginia Woolf famously argued, creative beings need a room of their own. ANW now has a 33,000-square-foot complex, complete with a comfortable 283-seat theater and enough room to house its expansive administrative and educational operation, so let us wish the company Godspeed in its imaginative endeavors.
“Twelfth Night,” Shakespeare’s gender-bending comedy of romantic confusion, is a festive way of ushering in this new era. Rodriguez-Elliott has set the play in Cuba, though this is mostly an excuse for some Caribbean dancing and atmospherics.
The play is otherwise straightforwardly rendered, revolving around those twin siblings, Viola (Angela Gulner) and Sebastian (Max Rosenak), each of whom believes the other is dead after a shipwreck has washed them up on different parts of the Illyria seacoast. The name of the game is identity mix-up, and once Viola disguises herself as male page for Orsino (Robertson Dean), an infatuated duke obsessed with the resistant countess Olivia (Abby Craden), the possibilities for madcap error explode.
If the test of a good production is the extent to which the final reunion and reconciliation scene moves an audience, then this “Twelfth Night” can be rated a solid effort. The staging, it must be said, doesn’t always maintain the highest standards of discipline — the diction of certain actors is garbled, the characterizations tend toward the broad side and the movement of the supporting performers has that herky-jerky quality that comes when exuberance overtakes grace. (Apollo Dukakis’ Sir Toby Belch, Anthony Mark Barrow’s Feste and Jeremy Rabb’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek, keyed up by the subplot shenanigans, are all occasionally guilty of these misdemeanors.)
But Dean and Craden bring a crisp refinement to their comic portrayals of headstrong aristocrats with a capricious amorous instinct, Gulner and Rosenak really could pass as twins (especially with their matching hairdos) and Deborah Strang as Olivia’s servant Maria tartly leads the cruel comeuppance of the pompous steward Malvolio, who is played as the butt of an almost Beckettian joke by Elliott.
This “Twelfth Night” may be nestled in a multimillion-dollar theater, but it still has shoestring production values. Kurt Boetcher’s sets are minimal and there’s little design extravagance anywhere on display. Shakespeare, a consummate man of the theater, would have no problem with getting things done on the cheap. The play, after all, is the thing, not the finery.
What I’d like to see in this next chapter of ANW’s story is a strengthening of its acting ensemble. Repertory companies enjoy the advantages of natural cohesion and stylistic diversity. But there is a downside that comes when plays are cast from the same limited talent pool. Performers who are not always ideal for certain parts begin to concentrate their attention on their external presentation. The playing gets larger while internal truth shrinks.
A Noise Within has already achieved a remarkable level of institutional success. But why not take it to the next artistic level by bringing in challenging directorial perspectives? The actors surely must be inspired by their new home to work even harder on their training. The sky’s the limit. We’re not just applauding courteously; we’re rooting for the company to keep growing.
— Charles McNulty
"Twelfth Night, Or What You Will,” A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. Contact theater for schedule. Ends Dec. 16. $42-$46. (626) 356-3100 or www.ANoiseWithin.org Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Photos: Upper: The cast of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" at A Noise Within. Lower: Deborah Strang and Apollo Dukakis. Credit: Craig Schwartz