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THEATER : Blessings, Backing for Vision : A Noise Within in Glendale enjoys good fortune and unsolicited gifts as it moves ahead with its clearly defined mission.

March 10, 1995|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times.

GLENDALE — Julia Rodriguez Elliott places a small case on a table, turns to her husband, Geoff Elliott, and says with a hint of astonishment, "Guess what I have?"

She snaps the case latch and slowly opens the lid. Inside is a set of several dozen rings of indeterminate value. Some are probably nothing more than costume jewelry. All of them can dress up an outfit, which is fine since the Elliotts are still searching for details to complete the look of the three productions composing the spring season of their classical repertory theater, A Noise Within.

One question: Where did Rodriguez Elliott get the rings? "A man closing down his jewelry store nearby just came by our office and gave them to me. He knew about us and figured we could use them."

Another question: How lucky can a theater get? While other companies continue to tussle with government and other entities for quake relief and financial lifesavers, and others simply struggle for an artistic identity, A Noise Within lacks neither support nor a clear mission.

The support includes a grant from the Glendale Redevelopment Agency to fund a move to a mid-size theater from the group's current 99-seat house in the historic Masonic Lodge on Brand Boulevard.

The mission is to perform the classics with a repertory unit of actors--the only ongoing group of its kind in Los Angeles, created by theater artists trained in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theatre.

"We've had these kinds of gifts out of the blue before," says Elliott, 37, looking at the case of jewelry. "You can't do what we do without a few breaks along the way. Our budget is as tight as bark on a tree."

But as baseball legend Branch Rickey once said, luck is the residue of design, and A Noise Within is designed as a company of classically trained actors able to juggle multiple roles in alternating plays.

The three spring productions, which began Wednesday with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," directed by Sabin Epstein, compose the second half of the theater's 1994-95 year. Also included are Anton Chekhov's "The Three Sisters," opening March 22 and co-directed by the Elliotts, and W. S. Gilbert's little-known 19th-Century comedy, "Engaged," opening April 5 and also directed by Epstein.

Rather than a grab bag of favorites and obscurities, the season lineup is the result of a long, serious process involving the entire company of more than 20, but primarily the artistic directors--Art Manke and the Elliotts, with plenty of advice from Epstein, 50, a company artistic associate.

This triple bill, complementing last fall's triplet of Shakespeare's "King Lear," John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" and Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The School for Scandal," make up a central theme.

"We arrived at the theme of the family," says Elliott, "of tribes, of relative encounters, whether it's a family of blood as in 'Three Sisters,' of the spirit, or a conflict between a blood family and a family by choice, as in 'Midsummer.' "

"Our philosophy," says Rodriguez-Elliott, 34, "isn't that a season theme will be a snazzy marketing trick to sell to subscribers, but that it can link disparate works in a new way with meaningful issues."

"With politicians everywhere positioning themselves on the family values thing," says Elliott, "that kept popping up in our discussion early last year, when we started mulling over the season."

The core artistic staff openly solicits play ideas from company members. They also spend time, in Rodriguez Elliott's phrase, "sitting around talking a lot about plays we haven't done, plays we should do, plays we might shy away from but should consider. The process was like rehearsals--we had our good days of inspiration, and not-so-good days."

The inclusion of "Engaged"--an 1877 farce by half of the operetta hit makers Gilbert and Sullivan, and written one year before "H. M. S. Pinafore"--was triggered by company member Emily Heebner's suggestion. "Emily told me, 'You absolutely must do this,' " Epstein says.

Heebner had performed "Engaged," which many scholars consider a seminal influence on Oscar Wilde and his masterpiece, "The Importance of Being Earnest," at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville, Ky., in the 1980s.

"As far as we can know," says Epstein, "this is the West Coast premiere of 'Engaged,' and I cannot understand why it hasn't been done before."

Following the tragicomedy of "Three Sisters" and the clash between the imaginary and real worlds of "Midsummer," Gilbert's "Engaged" depicts the wild misadventures of a young man named Cheviot Hill who proposes to seemingly every woman he meets.

Epstein, who also directed "Earnest" at A Noise Within in 1993, dismisses the idea that "Engaged" is very close to Wilde: "Gilbert is very clear, very broad in his comic writing, while Wilde forces your mind to work at high speed. It may not be as acerbic as 'Earnest,' but 'Engaged' shows how people equate money with love."

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WHERE AND WHEN

What: A Noise Within's spring repertory season of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Three Sisters" and "Engaged."

Location: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

Hours: Plays alternate in repertory. 8 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Price: $15 to $19.

Call: (818) 546-1924.

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