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No Longer Wary of Greeks

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

A Noise Within has made its mark by going bravely where others fear to tread.

Launched in 1991 by Art Manke, Julia Rodriguez Elliott and Geoff Elliott, the intrepid Glendale-based classical repertory company set itself the seemingly impossible mission of bringing the classics to a region known more as the pinnacle of pop culture than as a haven for traditional theater.

The company raised its first curtain with the ever-daunting “Hamlet,” and its ambitions are not just limited to its programming--over the course of only eight seasons, the company has managed to make the much-feared leap to mid-size faster than any other comparable troupe in recent memory.

Still, A Noise Within continues to raise the bar. More expansion--in the form of a planned 450-seat theater that will replace the current 150-seat house--is waiting in the wings. Even more important, A Noise Within continues to challenge itself and its (often capacity) audiences with ever more difficult and diverse scripts.

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Case in point: Friday marks its first foray into Greek tragedy, with Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” in the West Coast premiere of a translation by highly respected Kenneth Cavander, directed by Noise artistic co-director Manke. The play will run in repertory with “What the Butler Saw,” directed by resident director Sabin Epstein, and “Heartbreak House,” directed by artistic co-directors Rodriguez Elliott and Elliott.

In keeping with company tradition, it’s yet another way of starting big. “Sometimes when we do a new genre, we’ll start with the greatest example,” says Manke, seated in his office in the landmark 1928 Masonic lodge that serves as the company’s home. “People may argue, but I think ‘Oedipus’ is the greatest of the Greek tragedies.”

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The “Oedipus” project was started thanks in part to suggestions the troupe’s trio of artistic directors had been given over the years. “We keep hearing, ‘When are you going to do a Greek?’ ” says Manke. “And from the inside, we’re saying, ‘You know, if we’re calling ourselves a classical company, we had better do a Greek one of these days.’ ”

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Approximately a year ago, when Manke, Rodriguez Elliott, Elliott and Epstein were first sitting down to discuss this year’s season, the possibility of a multi-part drama was raised. “We were looking for some sort of two- or three-play epic, because we thought that would be a good thing to challenge the company,” Manke says.

Manke had heard of “The Greeks,” a 10-play adaptation that the British-born scholar and dramatist Cavander had done for the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early 1980s. Played over the course of several nights, the compilation of plays about the Trojan War was a theater landmark in its time.

“It was the first time they did a multi-evening performance--and the only time in the history of the RSC that a production had been sold out before it had opened,” says Cavander, speaking by phone from his home in New York, of the pre-"Nicholas Nickleby"-era project. The piece has since been produced in both British and American theaters, including last year at the Alley Theater in Houston.

Its popularity, Cavander suggests, had to do with the narratives at the core of the dramas. “These plays are actually very good stories and can be expressed in good language,” says Cavander, who, in addition to an extensive theater career, has long made his living writing dramas and documentaries for television.

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“I always get very steamed when the people say the Greeks did this or sounded like that and make some wild statements about it,” Cavander says. “And you know that most people have never read the original text.”

That the stories seemed both strong and comprehensible was exactly what struck Manke when he first read “The Greeks.” “I was instantly taken with how it was in language that modern audiences could hear,” he recalls. “It sounded like real human beings talking, but it still had a sense of poetry and scale.”

But “The Greeks” seemed too much to tackle for A Noise Within. "[Cavander] has a two-evening version and a three-evening version,” Manke says. “But even the thought of a two-evening version was just beyond me.”

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Manke contacted Cavander to see if he had any single-play translations, and the writer obliged by sending several scripts. Manke read “Oedipus the King” first and knew it was his play.

“It was the first time I’d ever read a translation of that play that I thought could work,” he says. “Most translators get locked into trying to re-create a poetic form. This was the first I’d seen that really focused on the content.”

On a trip East in April, Manke met with Cavander. The translator cautioned the director about the challenges posed by a Greek tragedy. But at the same time, he confirmed Manke’s belief that the plays continue to have something vital to say.

“I don’t think the plays are that easy to bring to life in the 20th century,” Cavander says. “But all around us we have references to that culture. Stripped to their bare essentials, they’re very powerful legends. They exist somewhere in our consciousness.”

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Manke knew his task was to uncover what it is that keeps us coming back to Oedipus. “The myth of Oedipus goes back to Egypt, if not further,” he says. “In ancient Greece, they knew the story, but they had to experience it as a culture, just as we have to. It’s probably the single greatest taboo that mankind possesses: sleeping with the mother and killing the father,” Manke says. “It doesn’t get worse than that. Part of the point of the play is, ‘Don’t go there.’ And when Oedipus tries to examine that, he’s blinded.

“It’s a bit like a car wreck: Everybody slows down on the freeway, but nobody would really want to walk up to the car and do anything about it. They want to drive by at a distance where it’s safe and encounter this tragedy.”

When meeting with Cavander, Manke also mentioned that he was planning to travel to Greece, which provided a convenient point of departure for a discussion of one of Greek tragedy’s trickiest devices: the chorus.

“The first thing he said to me about the chorus was that you’ll see when you go to Greece, that these people in the villages know each other’s business: They’re a very small community,” Manke says.

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“He said that the chorus needs to be [like] these people who live in these villages and know what’s going on with the king at all times,” the director continues. “The tricky thing is, because he’s the king, they’ve got to be careful what they say or how they express it in front of him.”

When Manke went to Greece in November, he made a point of visiting the settings that inspired the dramas, including the legendary crossroads where some of the key events of “Oedipus the King” are said to have taken place.

“I wanted to at least have an understanding of the specific of where the things occurred,” Manke says. “I don’t know how it translates practically to the production, but it certainly gave me an understanding.”

Yet such research should not suggest that Manke’s approach to “Oedipus the King” is museum-like. On the contrary, several roles traditionally played by men will be played here by women.

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“Ancient Greece at this time was coming out of a goddess-based culture, and there were still remnants of that, so I thought this was an interesting solution,” he says. “And on a practical level, we’re always trying to find more roles for women in classical drama.”

More important, he’s tried to heed Cavander’s warning about keeping the play lively and human.

“It’s very hard these days to do the Greek plays as they appear in the manuscripts, because there is so much that’s remote and boring,” Cavander says. “Here’s the thing that people miss: These plays are actually very witty. There’s a feeling of irony and human failings and eccentricities. It’s not all doom and gloom.”

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“OEDIPUS THE KING,” A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Dates: Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m. Also March 21, 2 and 7 p.m.; March 24-26, 8 p.m. Call for April and May dates. Ends May 8. Prices: $24-$28; opening night, $38. Phone: (818) 546-1924.


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