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Teenage Crush 

In praise of A Noise Within

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
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Photo by Fred Vicarel
I'm feeling a bit guilty about my freewheeling potshots at Southern California's best classical rep company, A Noise Within. It may seem strange that my complaint over the years has been largely a function of the troupe's remarkable assemblage of acting and design talent, combined with its enviable organizational skills: This company was bringing schoolchildren into its theater before it got a dime in grant money to do so; its better efforts have been invited to perform across the Southland, while it has grown from a 99-seat to a midsize theater, and rallied the local community on its behalf -- all in seven seasons. A Noise Within's very existence is a kind of miracle.

Perhaps, then, it was incongruous for me to criticize the body of the troupe's admittedly polished repertories as being too traditional, even staid. It is in Glendale, after all, not Berlin.

The problem was -- and still is -- that when the company would announce its intention to stage, say, King Lear or The Three Sisters, you could pretty well anticipate that the Bard's lament would come out resembling the Royal Shakespeare Company's production with Sir Laurence O., and that Mr. Chekhov's play would be funny and realistic and ever-so-slightly anxious. And that the respective period costumes would be not only magnificent to look at, but also perfectly color-coordinated, with each other and with the set.

You can count on a production at A Noise Within the same way you can count on a Merchant Ivory film -- for enveloping atmosphere, fastidious detail and toxic reverence. A company this good need not be so predictable, so fearful of taking a classic and hurling it into the sky, just to see what hidden trinkets might tumble out in the process. These are skillful productions, mind you: Were there even a trace of incompetence on this stage, the argument wouldn't be worth raising.

Still, there's this nagging remorse, spurred recently by three interrelated occurrences: 1) the appearance of an article last month by Richard Morrison in the Times of London, 2) my visit to Glendale's Hoover High School earlier this year -- specifically to Chuck Brogdon's English class, of which the majority of students had seen at least one ANW production, and 3) my having just viewed ANW's truly excellent rendition of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, revived and only slightly modified from the company's 1996 production.

Referring in his article to the island he dubs "The United Kingdom of Great Bingoland," Morrison addresses the collective panic among theaters, museums and classical orchestras now that millions of pounds in British Lottery moneys are actually being allocated to the arts. For the money is there, but the patrons, in particular the young patrons, are not.

This has set off a desperate campaign of outreach programs, liaisons between theaters and schools with all manner of vouchers, and a general push to have arts programming become as "accessible" as possible. The British, it seems, are awakening to the rude reality that they may indeed have lost an entire generation of arts patrons, and that their now financially well-endowed theaters and symphony houses may amount to little more than mausoleums with money.

Morrison places the blame for all this on the British school system: "The arts will never find those 'new audiences' . . . while the changes in the mandatory primary school curriculum relegate music, dance, drama and art to invisibility in favor of yet more slogging on spelling and arithmetic." In findings verified by a survey for the Royal Society of Arts, Morrison concludes, "Not surprisingly, demand among teachers for in-service training in the arts has dropped by 85 percent. Many of these courses have consequently been dropped in the past year . . . What sort of education is that? . . . If you want to make fine wine, you need fine grapes. And if you want to create a cultured nation, you first create cultured children."

All of which brings back the visit to Hoover High, where the parallels are obvious and painful. Mr. Brogdon talks to his students with a mix of cajoling and snapping -- whatever will ensnare his wards' often scattered attention. He is, himself, an intoxicating blend of acerbic skepticism and quixotic determination, who has pretty much set up his own program for getting high schoolers into local theaters -- of which A Noise Within tops his list. He organizes the outings himself, often fronting the money for the kids' tickets, with almost no administrative or financial support from the school.

ANW's outreach director, Emily Heebner, told me about the sense of triumph they felt when a former student of Mr. Brogdon actually took out an ANW season subscription a few years later. Still, in the hour of class time Brogdon gave me to interview his students -- seniors whom he described as "typical" rather than advanced -- the impression was disconcerting. Though they acknowledged enjoying ANW's productions, almost none said they would return on their own steam. For reasons of both expense and aesthetics, they'd rather go to a movie. (The exceptions here were the students who had performed, or were about to perform, in the school play.) Their favorite productions at ANW were Chekhov's The Seagull and Sam Shepard's Buried Child -- because, a girl explained, "the costumes were closest to our own clothes."

"You see what I'm up against?" Brogdon piped in.

ANW has links with almost two dozen local schools and colleges, but even with grants and outreach programs, the theater obviously can't entice a new generation of audiences by working in a vacuum. The lesson from Britain is that arts advocates like Mr. Brogdon, and what remains of his sympathetic colleagues in the elementary schools, could use some institutional support. Otherwise, culturally, we'll just keep growing dumb and dumber.

Charles Dickens wrote his novels as though for 14-year-olds; so many of them are about coming of age -- no matter how old the protagonist -- and he invariably includes children among his galleries of colorful eccentrics. In these appealing if reductive entertainments, the wealthy characters tend to be vilified, and the poor romanticized. Among the many wonders of Great Expectations -- and of Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott's staging of it, in Barbara Field's adaptation -- is its complete faithfulness to that view of 19th-century London society, and its ability to traverse the adulthood of Pip (Todd Beadle, as a charming tabula rasa) in tones ranging from hijinks to pathos, from jubilation to winking haunted-house terror.

Indeed, cobwebs dangle from the chandelier of Thomas Buderwitz's platformed, scaffolded set, while a London street lamp sprouts at a slight angle from one corner. A company of 14, portraying well over two dozen characters, both tells and enacts the story -- sometimes reciting the narrative en masse in sundry, captivating formations, or with individuals suddenly telling us an inner thought or describing a new location.

The story is, of course, both a parable and a socially charged romance. Young orphaned Pip leaves his home on the marshes -- under the harsh watch of his screechy older sister (Jill Hill) and her kindly blacksmith husband (Stephen Rockwell) -- when he stumbles onto an unlikely career as a "gentleman," a career mysteriously underwritten by a secret patron. Pip assumes that the patron is the aging Miss Havisham (Deborah Strang), a once-spurned bride still living in her wedding dress and determined to pass her bitterness on to her adopted child Estella (Ann Marie Lee, in a performance of hypnotic animation). "I have no heart," Estella keeps explaining through the years to a smitten Pip as he climbs the social ladder, leaving good common folk behind for a world that turns on duplicity and is financed by theft.

Watching Expectations, I suddenly understood the core of my ache with so many ANW productions, and how this one overcomes it. I remember wishing the company's Richard III would dig deeper, or that ANW might nudge Another Part of the Forest at least a couple of inches out of the sludge of Lillian Hellman's melodrama. Instead, the troupe stages classics as though targeting a teenage audience -- which is why Dickens fits in so well here. I had always assumed the approach was somehow remedial. In the larger context, however, it may just be the company's saving grace.

The Elliotts' rigorously disciplined production of Great Expectations shows off this already premium acting company at its best. While the saga's gallop across decades keeps jerking the audience along -- especially since so much of it is narrated -- certain cameos keep it sparkling: Geoff Elliott's wheezing convict, Magwitch, for example, or Robertson Dean's silken attorney, Jaggers, or Gail Shapiro's tender spinster, Biddy. It closes this weekend. See it -- and for heaven's sake, bring your children.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS
Adapted for the stage by BARBARA FIELD
From the novel by CHARLES DICKENS
At A NOISE WITHIN
234 S. Brand Ave. Glendale
Through December 20

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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