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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Don Carlos

By Stanley Nemeth

Los Angelesí adventurous Evidence Room has devoted much of its current season to rescuing certain contemporary works of distinction from unwarranted local neglect ( Saved, and Three Days of Rain, among others). Now, unpredictably and just as wonderfully, it has delved into the classical repertory, staging a fast-paced, eminently theatrical, and, at key junctures, startingly insightful, adaptation of Friedrich Schillerís declamatory drama of ideas Don Carlos.

Schiller as dramatist is frequently compared to Shakespeare, and there is no denying that echoes of Hamlet and Othello help shape plot and character in Don Carlos. But Shakespeare wrote for the stage with little apparent concern that his plays would survive as literature, whereas it appears that Schiller in Don Carlos wrote a dramatic poem, intended for reading as much as for production on the stage. One of the scenes in the work, as has often been pointed out, is without peer as a brilliant dramatic encounter (for example, . the Posa-Phillip II debate that closes Act 3), but certain others because of unwarranted length or repetitiveness lack the power or the pacing suitable for fully effective stage performance.

The largely successful adaptation used in this production is by local playwright John Rafter Lee. He has pared down the play, but operating out of due respect , he has retained, in fact even thrown into higher relief, the complexities and ambiguities of theme and character that lift Schillerís work above dated melodrama. Thus, in the conflict between the Spanish prison state and the sought for free Netherlands we clearly see, Schillerís Enlightenment preference for freedom of thought and speech over tyrannical, arbitrary restrictions on such. At the same time he makes us share his uncomfortable awareness that circumstances and depth of character often complicate easy likes and dislikes as well as ideals. His tyrant Phillip is no melodramatic stage villain, but a shrewd, suffering tyrant. Similarly, his idealist Posa is duplicitous and ultimately compromised. Their great encounter makes clear that in the current production no single character is intended to emerge as an unqualified hero or old-fashioned villain.

The performances of the men in Evidence Roomís staging are distinguished and, in one instance, exceptional. Stunning is the word to describe Tom Fitzpatrickís Phillip II. Despite the modern translation and its often colloquial speech patterns, the declamatory dimension of the dialogue is largely maintained, and Fitzpatrick has the requisite vocal agility, clarity and power to be fully on top of his role. Therefore, he has the freedom to play with the part, infusing it with numerous subtleties of vocal color, facial expression, and gesture. His tyrant - who weeps - emerges as a fully credible character.

Also impressive is Tony Abatemarcoís verbally secure and frightening Cardinal Inquisitor, a blind old man who smells out heresy, but being totally without insight, proves blind in a more damning sense. Brilliantly, Abatemarco is made to wear contemporary dark glasses, hence encouraging the audience to look for where the unrelenting surveillance of people and the hatred of dissent which he represents survive today. (This is relevance which does not distort but instead extends the reach of Schillerís vision ).

Christian Leffler is a handsome, soulful-faced, pale young man ideally suited physically to the role of Don Carlos. The chief drawback in his performance is the same one found in Nick Offermanís Posa. Neither actor has or chooses to employ the vocal range Schillerís lines, even in this adaptation, demand. Acting pretty naturalistically, they both seem oddly afflicted with simply too many words. Focusing on getting all the words said, they donít have room for much more, and each seems perilously close to being trapped in a single mood., that of the sorely beset or the peculiarly optimistic On the positive side, Leffler does convey with credibility the multiple-sourced frustrations and pain of a Carlos who he has been denied paternal affection, then his fiancee, and finally a desired post in the Netherlands. Offerman in his great confrontation with Phillip II rises to the occasion and displays requisite presence and some dash.

The women in this production, with the exception of Alyce La Tourelle as the Queen, unfortunately do not fare so well. In moments of unjust accusation, La Tourelleís eyes flash and a suitable disquiet -- that of outraged innocence -- informs her words and gestures. One wishes a similar energy fired the performance of Mandy Freund as the love-spurned adulteress, Countess Eboli. She after all is a chief fomenter of revenge plots, motivated by jealousy and humiliation. For reasons unclear, Freund plays her part too palely, with an almost neurasthenic understatement, and this is a fairly unconvincing stance, given her take-charge role in the court intrigues. No mover or shaker onstage, she lingers in the memory mainly as a redheaded actor who keeps on falling or being pushed down. The problem with the remaining female performances (and some of the weaker male ones too) stems, I suspect, from the widespread inability of the democratic, naturalistically trained American actor to suggest high station or any sort of nobility with a bearing and speech that transcend simplistic caricature. Upper class characters in older dramas, even when theyíre meant to be benighted or foolish, tend to be reduced by so many of our otherwise fine actors to merely mugging, snobbish cartoon figures. In this production, the women are too frequently grouped together, merely making faces and sporting costumes perhaps more suitable to Cinderellaís stepsisters.

The direction of Bart DeLorenzo deserves singling out for the impressive pacing of the scenes. Two and a half hours of declamatory drama moves by swiftly, while the delicate balance of the playís chief complexities is never upset.

The set, too, given the resources of Evidence Room, is distinguished. A back wall on tracks allows the stage to become alternately a large, open throne room and then a hidden, claustrophobic chamber to which one might flee to escape the ongoing surveillance of Phillipís court. The lighting also does service to the subtleties of the text. Schiller plays with light and dark imagery throughout the lines, and this pattern culminates in the ultimate appearance of the power behind Phillipís throne, the blind Cardinal Inquisitor. At his appearance, the stage is initially flooded with light, but the dark glasses heís made to wear donít allow us to be deceived. When he sets his final plan in motion, the lights grow dim. This power of darkness who rules and from whom even Phillip takes orders is fully revealed as blind in more than one sense of the term.

All in all, for its strengths and its tolerable weaknesses this is a production not to be missed.

Don Carlos
Written by Friedrich Schiller
Adapted by John Rafter Lee
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo
Cast: Phillip II - Tom Fitzpatrick, Queen Elizabeth - Alyce LaTourelle, Don Carlos- Christian Leffler, Marquis of Posa -Nick Offerman, Duchess of Olivarez -Lisa Black, Marchioness of Mondecar - Liz Davies, Countess Eboli - Mandy Freund, Page - Douglas Hernandez, Alba - Christopher Kelley, Lerma - Mark Daneri, Feria - Don Oscar Smith, Don Ramon - Kirk Wilson, Officer- McLaurin Jackson, Watchman - Aaron Francis, Domingo - Jan Munroe, Prior - Don Oscar Smith, The Grand Inquisitor - Tony Abatemarco
Costume Design: Ann Closs-Farley
Sound Design: John Zalewski
Set Design: Jason Adams, Alicia Hoge
Lighting Design: Rand Ryan
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission
Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles
6/09/01-7/08/01
Reviewed by Stanley H. Nemeth based on June 15, 2001 performance
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©Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer.
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