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THEATER REVIEW : New Company Sets Stage for the Future


PASADENA — The Knightsbridge Theater, the new, ambitious professional company that just opened in Old Town, is making good on its basic promise: to be an actors' theater first, as opposed to a crowd-pleasing venue bent on reviving well-known hits.

Its initial triple-deck package of Samuel Beckett ("Waiting for Godot"), Neil Simon ("The Good Doctor") and Shakespeare ("As You Like It") is the kind of classical/contemporary theater-going experience that's foreign to most other San Gabriel Valley stages.

It's not only the sheer quantity of plays alternating in the low-ceilinged basement theater in the Braley Building, but also the emphasis on acting and an eclectic play menu that sets the company apart from other Valley theaters.

Whether this serious intent translates into box office patronage remains to be seen.

The 99-seat theater, after just a few weekends, wasn't setting Old Town on fire. Houses were slim and, in fact, the cast of "As You Like It" almost outnumbered the audience.

But it's what's on stage that is the barometer of the future. And the promise of this group is quite apparent in its trio of debut productions.

The achievements range from the finely realized absurdist style in "Waiting for Godot" to the delicate tonal quality of much of the Chekov-inspired "The Good Doctor" to a set of lovely performances in the Forest of Arden of "As You Like It." The latter is highlighted by Adam Menken's lustrous "All the world's a stage" sevenagesofman speech, which is so movingly articulated it almost stops the show.

The ultimate compliment to all three casts is that their various skills quickly make you forget the stage's oppressively low ceiling, which otherwise tends to create a vague sense of claustrophobia.

Lighting designer David Artuso, who lit all three shows, does much to animate the stage, which is painted totally in black (like the long, narrow house itself).

What all the productions lack is imaginative set designs to complement the strong acting and competent direction.

"Waiting for Godot," in which two tramps (the excellent Tony Montero and the over-hyper Jamie Lynn Arsenalt) vacillate between hope and despair, is visualized by a bare-limbed tree trunk that never really interacts with the characters. (Other productions have more resourcefully used heaps of garbage with the actors' heads peaking out).

"As You Like It," directed by Priscilla Finch, suffers from almost no design at all--a mere set of portable, blandly drawn panels--that almost compels the cast to be luminous enough to make you ignore the thin look of the show.

Happily, many of the actors accomplish just that. Among the more sterling (following Menken's indelible role as the subtly sad/wise Jacques) are Gillian Bagwell's gleaming, shimmering Duchess, Joseph Foss' acrobatic clown Touchstone, (theater co-founder) Barbara Naylor's lovesmitten Rosalind and Matthew Sullivan's dynamic aristocratic tyrant Oliver (whose bell-like diction pleasantly peels away each syllable of the iambic pentameter poetry).

Knightsbridge co-founder and artistic director Joseph Stachura (who directed "The Good Doctor") has consciously put the quality of the acting over and above the physical values of the productions. His priorities are certainly straight, but not without some risk.

For instance, Katrina Foreman's set design for "The Good Doctor," which is an amusing palette of 10 separate tales set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is actually over -designed with a log cabin that's more cluttered than artful. But, with the exception of a few sketches that go on for much too long, what beautifully crafted vignettes director Stachura draws from Maureen O'Hara look-alike Eden Bodnar, the cuckolded David Paul Needles and the confident, suave lover Eric Marx in "The Seduction" and from Susanne Olsen's eager young thespian in "The Audition." They are the production's brightest moments.

On the other hand, the black stage plays right into the absurdist mood of "Waiting for Godot," in which director Terry Green cleverly has altered the servant Lucky into the image of a dog (the stringy-haired Thomas Dunn) straining fiercely at the end of a huge collar and a whip-like leash welded by his bombastic, Nietzschean master, Pozzo (aptly played in the mode of a circus master by Chris Hendrie).

Onstage, it must have been hot, as beads of sweat poured down some of the actors' faces. Although the audience was cool enough, the theater's swamp cooler of an air conditioner is a mixed blessing because its constant drone interfered with the actors' dialogue.

In any event, a new, soundless cooling system will be installed shortly.

The opening of the Knightsbridge is not without its blemishes, but as the newest act in town it is fresh, challenging theater that can only get better.

* The Knightsbridge Theater, 35 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena (basement of the Braley Building). "The Good Doctor," Fridays, 7 p.m., Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. (running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes). "As You Like It," Saturdays, 5 p.m., Sundays, 8:30 p.m. (running time: 2 hours). "Waiting for Godot," Fridays, 9:30 p.m. (running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes). Ends Aug. 1. $10-$15. (818) 440-0821.

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