Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Grand Illusion

March 20, 2012

Deborah Strang and Jeff Doba Photo : Craig Schwartz/ANW 2012
Pasadena’s A Noise Within Theater Company is spending much of the Spring in 17th Century France. They’ve had great successes with Molière before and The Bungler will open early next month. But perhaps more unusually, the company is also mounting an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s comedy-drama-romance L’Illusion Comique from 1636. The play was radical in its day with a number of innovations including a play-within-a-play structure and broad shifts in tone mashing together elements of different genres. And while these devices aren’t unfamiliar to modern audiences, Cornielle’s original can still seem jarring and episodic. The play has enjoyed new found popularity in recent years however after playwright Tony Kushner completed a new translation and adaptation of the play streamlining some of its more circuitous plot turns.

It’s this version that ANW brought to the stage last weekend in its new Pasadena home under the direction of Casey Stangl. It’s a fanciful story with young lovers and sorcerers that looks great on the more expansive thrust stage of ANW’s new space. The company has always managed illusions well, but in Pasadena they have a chance to look grand. The action follows an older man, Pridamant, who has come to the cave of a sorcerer, Alcandre, seeking to learn about the fate of his son whom he had abandoned many years before. Alcandre summons a number of visions that relate episodes from the son’s life in his father's absence. However, each vignette unfolds in a slightly different context with the names of al the players, including Pridamant’s son, slowly changing from one segment to the next. And like Corneille’s original, there is a little bit of everything from romance to the pastoral. But Kusher leans heavily on romantic comedy overall and the main thrust of the drama tells the story of how the son and the young woman he loves become connected and stay that way.

And yet despite the unusual structure and episodic nature of the play, this production is extremely engaging for the most part. Stangl’s sense of timing is key and some of the best artists on the ANW roster have plum roles. Deborah Strang plays Alcandre with an air that is equal parts Prospero and Puck. She interacts very little with the cast of the son’s romantic world which includes a number of stock characters such as a buffoon expertly managed by the very funny Alan Blumenfeld. The dashing Graham Hamilton plays the sons' parts opposite Devon Sorvari’s paramours in a Tales of Hoffmann-inspired way. Abby Craden makes her mark in the conniving maids' roles. Each vignette builds upon the next with parallels drawn between ostensibly different characters throughout the text. The play does have several wistful and melodramatic bits but the show hits all the right notes with its reflections on aging and staying current in a world that rapidly passes us by. This is a great chance to see a relative stage rarity and as usual ANW has put together a high quality, dramatically satisfying take on a play that is remembered for good reason.


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