The French, They Are A Funny Race, or so goes the title of a 1955 Preston Sturges comedy.  Not having seen that film, I’m not quite sure which “funny” its title refers to—“funny-amusing” or “funny-peculiar.” In Jean Anouilh’s The Rehearsal, it’s quite clearly a good deal of both. 

On a late afternoon in the spring of 1950, the Count and Countess of someplace or other are welcoming guests to the Château de Ferbroques.  As the Countess explains to Monsieur Damiens, her lawyer, she and her husband have been left the château by the Count’s late aunt on condition that they spend a month there every spring and that they turn the west wing into an orphanage for twelve parentless children.  Thus, it’s in the east wing that the Count and Countess are now making preparations for a Charity Ball, which will include a performance of Marivaux’s play Double Inconstancy, to star the Count, the Countess, the Count’s mistress Hortensia, the Countess’s lover Villebosse, close family friend Hero, and Monsieur Damiens’ god-daughter Lucile, whom the Count would like to make Mistress Number Two (though not if the Countess and Hortensia have anything to do with it).

What follows makes for a beautifully acted and often amusing, though for me at least, rather too talky three-act comedy-drama. Though The Rehearsal is A Noise Within’s “modern” production in a Spring season which has also included Shakespeare and Ibsen, the fact that its cast of characters remain mostly garbed in 18th Century costumes gives it a far less contemporary feel than Fall season’s The Rainmaker, and makes it a particularly good fit for “California’s Home For The Classics.”

Under Julia Rodriguez-Elliot’s assured direction, it’s indeed amusing to watch the Countess (Susan Angelo) conspiring with Hortensia (Jill Hill) to prevent the former’s husband and the latter’s lover from deflowering the innocent Lucile (Lenne Klingaman), as meanwhile the Count (Robertson Dean) finds himself so bowled over by the 20-year-old beauty that he may in fact be in love with her in a way he never has been with either his wife or his mistress. Villebosse, the Countess’s ardent 20something boy toy (Steve Coombs), seems more an inconvenience to his much older lover this weekend than anything else, and Monsieur Damiens (Mitchell Edmonds) observes the proceedings from a comfortable distance.  

Ultimately, it’s to Hero (Geoff Elliot) that the Countess turns in her machinations to remove Lucile from her husband’s grasp—and his heart.  Hero’s ugly seduction of Lucile makes up The Rehearsal’s very long final scene, turning the play’s hitherto relatively sweet intrigues decidedly bitter. Far from the romantic, upbeat ending provided by last season’s The Rainmaker, The Rehearsal ends cynically, and as art film connoisseurs will attest, the French would have it no other way.

Performances are The Rehearsal’s strongest suit, in a cast which merges illustrious ANW Resident Artists Dean, Edmonds, Elliot, and Hill with guest artists Angelo, Coombs, and Klingaman. Dean and Edmonds are never anything but excellent, as they are here, and Hill is an amusing standout as the mistress turned accomplice to her lover’s wife.  Angelo makes a stellar ANW debut as the elegant, conniving Countess and Coombs is so adorably earnest as Villebosse that it’s a shame Anouilh didn’t give him more to do in the play.  Elliot makes Hero a creepy fellow indeed, particularly in the play’s disturbing final scene.  Making perhaps the strongest impression is the superb Klingaman, who manages more than anyone else in the cast to make Pamela H. Johnson and Kitty Black’s translation of Anouilh’s original French dialog sound almost natural and entirely spontaneous.  Waiflike yet womanly, Klingaman’s Lucile is more than a match for anyone in the play—except the dastardly Hero.

The Rehearsal is one of the most gorgeously designed productions I’ve seen at A Noise Within. Michael C. Smith’s elegant set with its cream-colored walls and elegant antique furniture (properties by Renee Cash) has been exquisitely lit by Ken Booth.  Soojin Lee outdoes herself with a bevy of absolutely gorgeous gowns, and Angelo and Hill look fabulous in Monica Lisa Sabedra’s wigs (both 18th Century and 1950s).  Scott Ford Barber incorporates some lovely mid-20th Century French chansons to mood-setting effect.

Like a recent production of Shaw’s Candida, The Rehearsal is a bit too talky for my tastes, and its ending rather too cynical, but its elegance, wit, and superb performances make it recommended fare to fans of sophisticated, intelligent theater.

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

–Steven Stanley
May 10, 2009
                                                                                   Photos: Craig Schwartz

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