When is a theater performance more than just a show? When it raises money for a good cause.
I have two local theater benefit productions to tell you about:
I can still close my eyes and see Janice Noga on the stage of the June Havoc Theatre in midtown Manhattan.
For 13 years, the indefatigable Fresno actress worked toward this moment: starring in the one-woman show “Janka” in New York. The image that sticks with me most is that of Noga, costumed in black slacks and turtleneck and a Star of David necklace, standing squarely facing the audience. Her confident frame is positioned in front of a set blending the realistic details of a grandmotherly New Jersey living room with a section of surreal curved metal scaffolding forming an arc over her head. Off that scaffolding hang items important in Janka’s life: a teddy bear, an American flag, a gun, a teakettle, a pair of scissors.
I can read it in her face: She made it to New York.
How often do you get to be there in the exact moment when someone realizes her dream?
I got the chance to tag along with Noga to New York in April when “Janka,” based on Noga’s mother-in-law, Janka Festinger Speace, and her remarkable story of heartbreak and survival in a Nazi concentration camp, played for a month-long run there.
Most of Noga’s friends and fans in Fresno, alas – including those who chipped in $50,000 to produce the off-off Broadway version – didn’t get to make that trip, however.
So she and her husband, Oscar Speace, who wrote the script and has been Noga’s constant creative partner in the endeavor, are bringing the show back to its birthplace for just two performances, Oct. 24 and 25 at the 2nd Space Theatre. Proceeds benefit the Junior Company Foundation, United Cerebral Palsy and the Fresno Arts Council.
The big draw for “Janka” fans, many of whom have seen the show over the years, is this: The production changed mightily in New York, thanks to director James Phillip Gates and producer Tracy Hostmyer (a Fresno State theater graduate, who with Gates co-founded the Roust Theatre Company). Those changes will be reflected in the 2nd Space performances.
The most obvious is that Gates insisted that Noga – who had a brain tumor removed in 1994, which affected her memory – memorize the entire show. (In the past she’d had a script in front of her.) Putting in tremendously long hours, she did just that.
For the first month and a half after she returned from New York and the “Janka” run, she performed the show by herself in her living room every three days. By August she was doing it every other day. In September, she’s run the show every day – all to retain not only her lines but also the blocking.
Gates also made other significant directorial changes. Instead of remaining seated on a stool, the director added lots of blocking, having her move about the set. Noga plays Janka as both a younger and older woman. And the emotional temperature of the show is elevated. To put it bluntly, Janka is angrier.
Perhaps the biggest change is Noga’s confidence. Last week she told me: “All these years before, I always thought I was a little better than mediocre. I didn’t think I was the greatest singer. I certainly didn’t think I was the best actor. I have faith in me now.”
When saw the play in earlier Fresno incarnations, I always saw and heard a little bit of Noga on stage. In New York, it was 100 percent Janka.
Could this benefit be “Janka’s” last performance? Perhaps, at least in terms of a pumped-up New York version, because it’s taken a lot of effort by Noga to keep her lines memorized.
Or there could be life for the show to come. Whatever the outcome, Noga emphasizes how important these 2nd Space performances are.
“It has been a huge honor to portray her,” she says. “She’s even more real to me. I love her very much. I said to Oscar, ‘I think your mother loves me, too.’ ”
‘ART’ AT MUSEUM
Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” a big hit in the 1990s, gets a benefit production in an appropriate place: the Fresno Art Museum. It runs for three performances Friday, Oct. 23, through Saturday, Oct. 24.
In the play, a man buys a 3-by-4-foot white painting with white diagonal lines for $200,000, sparking a series of debates between him and several friends about art and friendship.
The production is a fundraiser benefiting the museum. It’s directed and underwritten by Jerry Palladino, founder and artistic director of the Curtain 5 TheatreGROUP; and Raoul Scott of the Fresno Soap Co.
The cast features Jason Andrew, Kodie Egenolf, tony sanders and Mathew Vargas.
- 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25
- 2nd Space Theatre, 928 E. Olive Ave.
- 559-237-9734, www.fresnoartscouncil.org
- Tickets: $50
- 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23 ($75, includes reception)
- 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24 ($35)
- Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. 1st St.