In the film Shakespeare in Love, the fidgety impresario played by Geoffrey Rush has a recurring line in response to questions about how a play ever gets mounted and ready by opening night. “I don’t know, it’s a mystery,” he replies with a roll of the eyes. You have to smile. How any production moves from zero to 60 is indeed a mystery wrapped in an enigma by a person with eyes closed and a heart filled with both despair and a ridiculous level of irrational optimism.
On the September morning before the third rehearsal of A Noise Within’s production of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid, Alan Blumenfeld worries about the pain in his hip. Blumenfeld is cast as the title invalid, the extreme hypochondriac Argan, but the pain in his hip is not imaginary. Or new. Blumenfeld recently took to using a cane for relief now and then. But this morning he’s staring at a different situation altogether: He can’t get out of bed. In step with the play he’s rehearsing, his doctors declare him in need of immediate hip-replacement surgery. No Argan for him. Not now.
Life doesn’t often imitate art quite so dramatically, but as shocking as it is, at least the crisis has happened early in the game, says director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who with her husband, Geoff Elliott, is the founding artistic codirector of A Noise Within (ANW) in Pasadena, Calif. Replacing Blumenfeld isn’t easy; he’s very right for the part. But this episode would be a far bigger problem if it had happened nearer to opening night—after costumes are stitched, wigs done, and the cast entrenched in other roles.
Blumenfeld is a resident artist at A Noise Within. So is Apollo Dukakis, a long-time company member close in age to Blumenfeld, and set to play Dr. Purgeon in the same production. Dukakis portrayed Argan with this company some 14 years ago. So could he…would he…? Well… Crisis averted.
If the precariousness of life in the theatre never goes away, the structure of ANW, which celebrates its 25th season this year, makes a quick solution like this both more difficult and more possible—difficult because ANW stages three plays in rotating repertory twice a season, separated by a holiday offering of Geoff Elliott’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol; possible because six of the eight actors in the Invalid cast are resident artists. They work there a lot and are accustomed to the drill and to each other. (In ANW’s case, the phrase “resident artists,” which also includes designers, refers to a kind of familial compatibility; no contracts are necessarily involved, but these artists are favored because they fit in well, have the creative chops, like working with the company, and can deliver the goods. As Rodriguez-Elliott puts it, “They’re always our first choice,” which means something short of guaranteed employment, yet a good deal more than preference.)
But is such familiarity an asset or a peril? Can artists become too cozy and complacent knowing they’re favored?
“That’s where the leadership comes in,” says Geoff Elliott. “If you sense it, you sit down with your folks and say, ‘Look, here’s what I see happening, are you aware of it?’ Usually they’ll pull themselves together. Most productions require some outside casting, and resident artists are energized by the outsiders. It overcomes that threat of ‘overweening familiarity.’ Many artists like having a playground, and artists in L.A. have the ability to also work in TV and film. You couldn’t do this in Barstow.”
The Elliotts, both graduates of Bill Ball’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco, founded ANW in 1991 with director Art Manke, who has since gone his own way. A cooperative relationship with Actors’ Equity allowed the company to grow in steps, from a theatre of 60 to 99 seats, to 145, and finally to the 283 seats at the $13.5 million house it now occupies in East Pasadena—a leap it made in 2011 thanks to significant gifts from foundations, corporations, board members, and individuals. Such a trajectory is rare in Southern California, in the shadow of major film and television production, and is mirrored by few companies in the area (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa being one example, International City Theatre in Long Beach and East West Players in L.A. being two others).
The building at 3352 East Foothill Blvd. is an airy, well-equipped 30,000-square-foot facility, complete with rehearsal space; shops for sets, props, and costumes; offices; and a student learning resource center. ANW runs a three-pronged summer workshop for youngsters of different ages, busing in some 15,000 students during the school year. “The kids study the plays in the classroom,” says Elliott, “so when they come they’re really psyched.”
The classics have been central to ANW’s mission from the start, with at least one American exemplar per season (this year there are two: O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! and the musical Man of La Mancha). Doing them in rotating rep means presenting them scattershot on different nights or days of the week, which poses budgeting, scheduling, and logistical challenges. The pattern is unique to this company and this region, but the Elliotts have been doing this for so long that choosing titles, finding variety, and assessing cast, production, and budget costs is now almost reflexive.
Last fall’s shows were Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Jean Genet’s The Maids, and Molière’s Invalid, adapted by Constance Congdon; the coming spring, in addition to Ah, Wilderness! and La Mancha, they’ll scale the heights of King Lear. With an annual budget close to $3 million, they look to balance big shows with smaller ones, though it wasn’t always an easy recipe, Elliott concedes: “We had to learn to be good at it.” The key, he explains, has been “creating community. I cannot stress enough the importance of having that larger conversation. We sometimes ask actors to be there, talk to people, meet donors and board members. It makes them feel more vested in the organization, and it helps audiences feel invited in.”
How to invite them into Invalid, Molière’s last play? There’s a slapdash feel to the writing; the playwright, old and sick at the time of its debut, died at home after collapsing onstage four days into the run. It’s a piece that deals sharply with his grievances with doctors, as the title suggests, and that takes self-deprecating jabs at the many rumored indiscretions of his much younger wife. So why this play, and why now?
“I like the ferociousness of the comedy,” says Rodriguez-Elliott. “Constance [Congdon] streamlined it so that it feels a lot more straightforward. She cut the role of Louison, Argan’s younger daughter, and of Béralde, Argan’s brother, the raisonneur who goes off on a tirade about doctors, which in this day and age doesn’t really work for me.”
In an email exchange, Congdon calls her version “majorly adapted.” She explains that she commissioned Dan Smith, a professional dramaturg and university professor of theatre with research interests in 17th- and 18th-century French theatre (and, incidentally, a three-time “Jeopardy!” champion), to do a literal translation as the basis for her adaptation, which had its premiere at San Francisco’s ACT in 2007. She cut the interlude/ballet sections (“They were there because the king liked to dance”) and reworked the plot, “created a backstory for the suitor, Claude, and upped the sexual humor. There are so many differences [from Molière] that I think of it more as a based on than an adapted from.”
Congdon isn’t able to see the ANW mounting, nor did she catch last summer’s production of her adaptation by the L.A. area’s Theatricum Botanicum. But she did see a staging in Paris “the year I was working on my adaptation, so I could see how it worked as written.”
That French production didn’t include the dances either. Her adaptation also makes plenty of room for anachronisms that vitalize the comedy. “Those are mine,” she writes of such references as Ebola, fibromyalgia, telephones, and Ikea. “Some came from the actors in the first production at ACT. [But] all of the spices in the smells of [Argan’s] farts came from me.” She’s not proprietary about the humor, however, and claims to welcome anything “that will delight [a] particular audience.”
In early rehearsals, the disciplined Dukakis, who took on Argan by default, struggles to catch up with his copious lines, working on them rigorously every chance he gets. Jeremy Rabb, another company stalwart and an inspired replacement as Dr. Purgeon, is tall, thin, slightly stooped, and plays sinister well; his whip-wielding Purgeon brings a stark, vaudevillian quality to the role, in keeping with the mildly macabre underline that Rodriguez-Elliott says she’s after. Likewise, Freddy Douglas, as Purgeon’s apothecary, Fleurant, who is charged with administering enemas with a menacing rocket-like contraption, adds a Nazi snarl to his character.
Carolyn Ratteray’s entrances, indeed even the mere mention of her name as Angélique’s rapacious stepmother, Béline, are marked by single claps of thunder (a gag from the ACT production that Congdon claimed for her script). Rafael Goldstein borders on the burlesque as Purgeon’s deranged nephew Claude, but his extreme performance proves tremendously effective.
And though Rodriguez-Elliott begins to worry that the adaptation might not entirely support these whiffs of Grand Guignol, audiences, she will soon discover, eat it up.
By the end of September Invalid has moved from the rehearsal hall into the theatre. The frame of the set is up. Lighting designer Ken Booth, music and sound designer Robert Oriol, and set and costume designer Angela Balogh Calin now join actors and director to incorporate the production’s technical underpinnings.
Rehearsals try for fun, but it’s too early. Things are chaotic. Rehearsal-room blocking needs adjusting in order to fit the floor map of the stage. Actors make trips to the costume shop, trying out wigs and parts of costumes. Booth fiddles with his lighting plot. A resident artist, he has designed lights with ANW since 1998. He’s not exclusive to theatre, earning his bread and butter in TV, but he loves the heightened creativity that theatre demands. “It’s where I like to be,” he says. He’s done 48 shows at ANW so far, 30 of them with Rodriguez-Elliott.
Much the same is true of Oriol, a classical guitarist, composer, and sound designer, who has knocked about L.A.’s smaller theatre scene, often with director Michael Michetti at Pasadena’s Theatre @ Boston Court and elsewhere. After working on a couple of “bad movies” (his words) and joining Michetti at ANW in 2013 for a staging of The Grapes of Wrath, he says he now chooses to work there almost exclusively. Aside from designing sound, he’s composed a playful, lighthearted score for Invalid, with songs that accommodate the lyrics by Congdon.
Charged with creating set and costumes for this Invalid, the Romanian-born Calin is everywhere, sampling fabric for upholstering chairs, or launching a costume parade with an array of be-feathered hats and unfinished coats, breeches, and gowns that hint at a heightened 17th-century look. A no-nonsense lady with the appearance of a slightly disheveled sprite, a serene demeanor, and a nifty sense of humor, Calin consciously chose theatre over film years ago and never looked back. She travels wherever jobs beckon, and so far they’ve beckoned from Denver, Milwaukee, San Diego, Los Angeles, Costa Mesa—and East Pasadena.
“Because so many of us know each other well,” she confides about ANW, “you become very willing to collaborate, be flexible, and adjust. We have limited storage, limited budgets, but…it forces you to become more inventive.”
Her set for Invalid is littered with more than 200 glass jars of all shapes and sizes that contain the presumed effluvia of Argan’s body. They range from pickle-jar size to containers as big as the largest Arrowhead water bottles. Most contain mixtures of food coloring, water, and alcohol “to keep bacteria growth in check over the course of the run,” says prop master Dillon Nelson.
When hair, wig, and makeup designer Danielle Griffith joins the party, merriment breaks out; some of the wigs are incongruous, askew, or otherwise comical, as the actors show off their new duds with varying degrees of klutziness or grace.
Goldstein, as Angélique’s ill-suited suitor, practices his roosterly preening as Claude in full wig and head harness—the “harness” being a relic seen in prints of the period that was apparently intended to curb irrational behavior among people afflicted with what we would now place on the autism spectrum. Kelsey Carthew’s wig as Angélique is ideal for that excitable girl: It flows triangularly upward and sideways—a perfect nest for a pair of breeding minnows, and a reminder of Phyllis Diller’s fabled description of her own coiffure: “This is not hair, it’s nerve ends.”
Carthew and Josh Odsess-Rubin, as her paramour Cléante, are new and welcome additions to the company. His Cléante is a soulful young pup, totally undone by his passionate infatuation. Carthew, possessed of a powerful pair of lungs and a piercing soprano, uses both to either sing exquisitely well or to have a shrieking meltdown when Daddy insists that she marry the man he’s picked instead of the man she wants.
Most of the time, Dukakis is enthroned in what can only be described as an adult high chair. It’s both clever and awkward. Will it work? The action is still too fluid to tell, yet specific enough to elicit giggles, and with his lines now more fluent, Dukakis is finding his way into Argan. He displays what Geoff Elliott—a silent éminence grise who visits rehearsal now and then—calls “an authenticity that renders him a lot more interesting than if he were simply playing for laughs.” That authenticity also helps anchor the wilder shenanigans of the action. With the first preview nine days away and some edges still rough, the offstage laughter occasionally sounds more nervous than jolly.
By Sunday, six days before that preview, Rodriguez-Elliott zeroes in on the more cumbersome exchanges between Argan and Toinette, now disguised as the “famous” doctor come to “help” him. The scene depends heavily on physical business: A metal table serving as a gurney won’t keep still, and the kitchen tools Toinette substitutes for medical paraphernalia require studied placement. With a knowing Angélique at her side, Toinette uses a kitchen funnel to examine Argan’s ears, and places an inverted colander on his head for who knows what reason; a chopping board and meat cleaver threaten instant amputation, and a baster suggests the injection of some unpleasant remedy via Argan’s posterior. All the while Toinette prattles on. Some of this works, some limps, some of it falls flat. They won’t really know what to keep or toss out until an audience is present as final arbiter.
A follow-up scene in which Argan plays dead to test the love of his wife and daughter is equally slippery. The ceiling chandelier is lowered and raised as Rodriguez-Elliott tries out different ideas. Dukakis and Deborah Strang, as Toinette, are seasoned actors, but problems persist—some spatial, some mechanical, some dictated by the choreography of the moment. Set pieces do not always work as intended, Strang’s false beard has a will of its own, wigs won’t stay put, and then there are those bustles…
ANW’s costume shop is not large, but it’s busy. Three seamstresses raise hems, tighten bodices, let down petticoats. Wardrobe mistress Maria Uribe is the party-of-one in charge; the other two come in as needed.
Strang, a reliably vivid performer and fine hand at comedy, is trying on a gown. She’s been with the company since 1992, when an infant ANW took possession of the third floor of a former Masonic Temple in Glendale and everyone handled pretty much everything, according to the laws of shoestring economics. Strang and her partner, Joel Swetow, had left New York City to come West for work in film and television, but the ups and downs of those industries found her going back to school to take up biology. You read that correctly.
“I mean, we were in our 40s,” she explains, as Uribe sticks pins in her dress. “It’s a total fluke that we ended up here. Joel happened to run into Sabin Epstein, who was a director with the company. We were invited to audition. I got cast in Coriolanus, and in the spring of ’93, Julia and Geoff asked me to play the Stage Manager in Our Town.”
The world didn’t immediately lose another environmental scientist; Strang continued with school for three more years. But then she started teaching in the conservatory and running the box office before becoming a regular member of the company. “[ANW] has allowed me to have a life in the theatre,” she says. She supervises the box office to this day.
By mid-afternoon, Rodriguez-Elliott calls for the first full-costume run-through. Rocky at best, chaotic at worst, there is at least now a discernible whole. The week that follows is devoted to 10-out-of-12s, a photo shoot, scene work, nail biting, and more run-throughs. Suddenly costumes and wigs are looking magically better. Four days into the countdown to that first preview, everyone is having much more fun. Calin has come up with dervish-looking outfits for the Epilogue. It has simple choreography with much song and dance (in all senses), during which Argan himself is finally mock-inducted into the Medical Academy.
This Epilogue, it must be said, takes total leave of its senses, cheerfully giving in to Congdon’s spoofy nonsense—gibberishimus Latinimus sung to Oriol’s catchy music. It departs slightly from Molière’s ending, but not from his intent. With the help of his friend, the writer/philosopher Boileau, Molière’s original text went in for what they called Latin macaronique (macaroni Latin) but we would call “pig Latin.”
The first preview on Oct. 9 brings strong enough audience reaction, including a partial standing ovation; it is not a laurel to rest on but a good gauge of what still needs tightening. By opening night on Oct. 15, everyone is ready and the show comes off smoothly. How? I don’t know; it’s a mystery.
Write-ups are mostly positive. Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty’s review is on the front page of the entertainment section, with an oversized photo of Ratteray’s Béline above the fold and a headline that reads “Comedic Tonic” writ large. It doesn’t get much better than that. He imputes to Rodriguez-Elliott some perceived flaws that rightfully belong to the adaptation, but heaps praise on Dukakis’s Argan for being “at once exaggerated and recognizably human” and “balancing the over-the-top comedy with the right dose of realism…The shtick is amusing, but the melodramatic campiness lowers the dramatic stakes.”
Mixed reaction or no, the photo, headline, and placement spur a ticket surge, and, two weeks into the run, sales are “healthy,” says Geoff Elliott. Expectations are that the production “will make budget.”
Other reviews are light on analysis, settling for varying degrees of approval. The South Pasadena Review online calls it “a deliriously mad production,” StageSceneLA suggests the production treats audiences to “a laughfest so delectably funny (and playfully raunchy) it would do Mel [Brooks] or Monty [Python] proud.” Stage Raw hails “several moments of directorial brilliance, which fall so far outside of Molière’s stuffy box that it transforms the play into something new and fresh.”
The most astute comments, however, belong to the “stuffy” man himself. In his response to attacks on his play The School for Wives, Molière stated that while tragedy might be heroic, “You haven’t achieved anything in comedy unless your portraits can be seen as living beings.” As for threats of “rules” to be imposed on writers in his day, he wrote: “I wonder if the golden rule is not just to give pleasure and if a play deemed successful is not [enough for it to be considered] on the right track.”
In short: If it works, embrace it. It took the renowned French actor/director Louis Jouvet, Molière’s 20th-century interpreter and supporter, to coin a phrase that Molière would have wished he’d written: “The golden rule of the theatre is that there is no golden rule.”
Sylvie Drake is a translator, writer, and former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.