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Enduring Qualities

Troupe's 'classical' choices for spring season include plays by Coward, Shepard.


When A Noise Within, Glendale's award-winning classical theater, announced its 1997-98 season, people were surprised at some of the choices, according to artistic co-director Art Manke.

There are usually two Shakespearean plays in the schedule. In the coming season, the Bard is represented only by "Richard III." Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson fills the other Elizabethan slot with his "Volpone." That's pretty logical. So is the choice of Anton Chekhov's turn-of-the-century, "The Seagull."

Even Moliere's rarely staged "The Learned Ladies" reflects the theater's commitment to the classical. A Noise Within also ventured into the modern era with last season's "The Glass Menagerie," which can arguably be called a classic. But next spring, in the second half of the season, there will be productions of Noel Coward's 1933 "Design for Living" and Sam Shepard's 1978 "Buried Child."

What makes Coward's comedy and Shepard's drama classics? Manke quotes theatrical legend Tyrone Guthrie who, when asked what constituted a classic, replied, "It's whatever I say it is."

That may sound a bit arbitrary, but Manke says that somewhere down the line the choice has to be made. A Noise Within's triumvirate of artistic directors, Manke along with Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, believes a work that was true yesterday, that is true today and that will be true tomorrow, begins to qualify as a classic.

Coward seems a safe bet, and Manke is convinced that Shepard's drama is destined to last.

All of these plays also have something in common, Manke says. Each season the company clusters its choices around a central theme. The theme of the new season, Manke says, is "Believers and Deceivers."

Richard III, of course, is known as a deceiver who used violence and manipulation to climb a bloody ladder to dubious glory. In Moliere's "Learned Ladies," a Tartuffe-type figure enters a household of gullible ladies, ostensibly to educate them in the finer things of life.

The company has long wanted to do Coward's play, which also fits nicely into the themed season, Manke says.

"Whenever you have the kind of relationships that are on display in the play," Manke says of the Coward work, "as a matter of fact, in any romantic relationships, a certain level of deceit is involved at some point. You say certain things because you love someone. They may not be entirely true, but you say them to save them the pain. That happens a lot in this play."

Shepard's "Buried Child" is also about believers and deceivers. But there's another reason for reviving it now. When the play opens in the second half of the season, it will be on the 20th anniversary of its debut off-Broadway. And there's another anniversary celebrated in the spring season. Chekhov's "Seagull" opened in 1898, a round century from its scheduled revival.

A classical theater depends on the technical training of its members, in the view of Manke and others at A Noise Within.

"The people in the company that we've sort of drawn together are highly trained actors, directors and designers," he says. "It's unlike a lot of situations where people are engaged for their personality or for their particular flair with a certain kind of role."

A Noise Within's intern program helps perpetuate the company's values by attracting young actors and directors willing to spend the time in the classics, to do the training. In contrast, he says, so many people come to Hollywood and want a fast success story, immediate gratification.

"But in theater," Manke says, "you have to invest the time. It doesn't happen overnight. You have to have the craft and technique to fall back on. That's our insurance policy."

* For more information about A Noise Within's season and other programs, call (818) 546-1924.

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