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A Noise Within Stumbles With Uneven "Twelfth Night"

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The cast of "Twelfth Night" at A Noise Within. Photo: Craig Schwartz
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There are so many great Los Angeles theatre companies stuck in tiny spaces that literally stifle their growth, and, worse than that, companies that have no physical homes at all, whose every production is a small triumph against encroaching entropy. This is why A Noise Within succeeding in its goal of building its own theatre in Pasadena is such an impressive achievement, and a sign that sometimes years of hard work do pay off. Unfortunately, their first show in the new space, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, is a bit disappointing. It's not bad, and a couple of the performances are deft, but it rarely shows us what A Noise Within is truly capable of when the company is on its game.

Viola (Angela Gulner) has just survived a shipwreck and believes that her twin brother was killed in the disaster. To get a job, she disguises herself as a man, "Cesario," and gets a job with local duke Orsino (Robertson Dean). Orsino's in unrequited love with the noblewoman Olivia (Abby Craden), so he sends Cesario to plead his case. Unexpectedly, Olivia falls for Cesario, while the real Viola finds herself smitten with Orsino. Meanwhile, the triumvirate of Olivia's lady-in-waiting Maria (Deborah Strang), her uncle Toby (Apollo Dukakis) and Toby's friend Andrew (Jeremy Rabb) pull a prank convincing Olivia's uptight and self-righteous steward Malvolio (Geoff Elliott) that his mistress is in love with him.

Gulner is proficient with the language, but her performance seems emotionally muted--her Viola never seems remotely interested in Orsino. Dean, however, is just right as the aforementioned duke, affecting a combination of courtly politeness and raw longing for Olivia that explains why he'd miss the presence of Viola hiding in plain sight. Craden is excellent as Olivia, initially chilly and formidable, then suddenly giddy and twitterpated as she swoons for Cesario. She brings the play to life every time she takes the stage, and her comedic timing is flawless.

Strang gives Maria an acerbic authority that's fun to watch, and Dukakis is properly blustery (if a bit one note) as the drunken Toby. Rabb is mildly amusing as the cowardly Andrew, but Anthony Mark Barrow underplays Feste the fool to the point that he barely registers. Elliott, made up to look very much like Riff-Raff from Rocky Horror, gets a lot of humor just from his lugubrious line readings, yet he seems to play the part slightly more for pathos than the role perhaps warrants.

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Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's direction has reconceived the play as happening in what seems like mid-twentieth-century Cuba, and this regrettably misfires. The new setting doesn't mesh in any notable way with the play, and is in fact a distraction. The lackluster dance sequences feel awkwardly shoehorned in to provide a sense of liveliness, but instead they just needlessly pad the show out. Kurt Boetcher's set is blandly minimal--a few pillars, props and a backdrop--but Angela Balogh Calin's costumes, particularly Craden's increasingly more colorful outfits, bring some brightness to the proceedings. A Noise Within's achievement in opening their new theater is commendable, and I eagerly look forward to this new chapter for the group, but with this Twelfth Night they seem to have stumbled out of the gate.

Twelfth Night plays at A Noise Within through December 16, 2011. Tickets are available online.