Thursday, June 18, 2015

28 (2015-2016): Review of MY PERFECT MIND (seen June 17, 2015)

"The Windmills of His Mind"


 With his long, weathered, but still noble face, sad eyes, gentleness, lanky frame, wispy white hair, mustache, and goatee, Edward Petherbridge, the distinguished British actor, would make a perfect Don Quixote. One can easily see him tilting at windmills, but in the brilliantly conceived and executed MY PERFECT MIND, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, it’s King Lear he’s portraying; that is, when he’s not also playing other persons in Shakespeare’s play, not to mention himself. And, as in the Jacques Brel song, the windmills that he’s tilting at are the ones within his mind.

“I fear I am not in my perfect mind,” says the king in act four of LEAR. The theatre piece that takes its title from that phrase says much the same thing about Mr. Petherbridge’s condition following a stroke he suffered in 2007 shortly after beginning rehearsals to play Lear in Wellington, New Zealand, forcing him to abandon the show. His mind seems perfect now, however, at age 78, coming up soon, as he reminds us, on 79. He beautifully, and with great charm and humor, navigates the extremely tricky shoals of this nonlinear, narratively fractured, self-deprecating, metatheatrical reflection on his life, career, Lear, and, of course, the theatre. 
Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Originally produced for the Told by an Idiot theatrical company, the Young Vic Theatre, and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, MY PERFECT MIND was written (leaving room for improvisation) by Mr. Petherbridge in collaboration with the exceptional comic actor Paul Hunter, who hilariously supports the star in multiple comic roles, and the marvelous actress Kathryn Hunter, who directed. It takes place on an assemblage inventively designed by Michael Vale to signify and satirize theatrical conventions. A sharply raked white platform, a trap door at its heart, set sideways to the audience; at its top a thundersheet. A plain white panel for a backdrop. Traditional wind and rain machines. A couple of bentwood chairs, a table, and random props. Not much to look at, but as used during the performance, a cornucopia of theatrical, and often terrifically funny, theatrical possibilities.
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Mr. Hunter serves both as Lear’s Fool in scenes from KING LEAR, but also makes everyone else he plays part of a rogue’s gallery of people (not necessarily fools) in Mr. Petherbridge’s life.  A few odd costume pieces, a wig, hair net, or cap infuse a farcical energy into all the people he portrays, including Dr. Witznagel, a lab-coated, bushy-wigged neurologist with a comically phony German accent, whose scenes serve as a sort of frame to the action. He begins the play as if speaking to a class of future “doctors of the brain,” introducing a case study of a man suffering from a brain trauma that has given him EPS (Edward Petherbridge Syndrome), a condition wherein Mr. Petherbridge believes he’s King Lear. Later, this morphs into its opposite, KLS (figure it out). Each time he mimes writing notes on the thundersheet, it produces its expected sound effect, causing him to look up as if the skies were about to open. Mr. Hunter’s comic timing and sensibility make you chuckle no matter how old-hat his shtick is.
Edward Petherbridge, Paul Hunter. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Over the course of the play he embodies characters in LEAR; himself when he costarred with Mr. Petherbridge in a flop 2010 West End revival of THE FANTASTICKS; Mr. Petherbridge’s pregnant mother, who had a stroke two days before her son was born; David Lawrence, director of Wellington’s Bacchanal Theatre Company; a cab driver imagined to have driven the star all the way from Wellington to Bradford, Yorkshire, where he was raised; a Japanese director casting Mr. Petherbridge in THE FANTASTICKS; Veronica, a Romanian housecleaner who rehearses LEAR with him; Sir Laurence Olivier, who at one point performs Othello by combining it with Richard III; Miss MacPride, his Bradford movement teacher who taught him the importance of “economy and selection”; the New Zealand doctor who treated his stroke, and others.

As the piece progresses it keeps shifting places and situations, going back and forth in time, satirizing actors’ affectations, taking us into rehearsals of Lear, informing us of major highlights in Mr. Petherbridge’s career (including his famous roles in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY and ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN, and his less famous one as an Incan priest in THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN*), showing Mr. Petherbridge reliving the acting exercises he performed for Miss MacPride (such as “A Day in the Life of a Gnat”), presenting Mr. Petherbridge as a child performing “Chickery Chick” in a talent contest at the Bridlington Pavilion, informing us of Mr. Petherbridge’s family background, and so on. Famous English theatre names drop frequently along the way, although not everyone will pick up every anecdotal reference to Coward, Wolfit, Finney, Branagh, and Holm. Ironically, we learn that, despite Mr. Petherbridge’s leaving LEAR, Wellington audiences soon after were privileged to see the world touring production of it starring Mr. Petherbridge’s friend, Ian McKellen.
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Mr. Petherbridge, wearing jeans and a blousy white shirt with various vests, jackets, and coats, shifts in manner from the convincingly off the cuff, seemingly improvisational, to the classically polished and powerful. He may sometimes give the illusion of searching for a word, but he never misses a beat, and even his most throwaway moments are clearly set and perfected. 
Paul Hunter, Edward Petherbridge. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Having gained fame mainly as a stage actor, especially during his tenure with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he’s not become a household name like those peers who’ve had important film careers. His best-known non-theatre work was as the debonair sleuth, Sir Peter Wimsey, in the 1987 BBC TV series based on the Dorothy Sayers novels. But it’s in the theatre that you want to see him, and now you’ve got your chance. Seize it.

[*Here’s a little anecdote of my own, stirred up when Mr. Petherbridge mentioned THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN. In 1963 I was a graduate student in Tokyo studying kabuki theatre. That November an international theatre conference brought many distinguished world theatre figures to Japan, including the director John Dexter. I got to know him a bit at the conference and, when the visitors were taken to see a kabuki production I sat next to him and explained the various conventions. In 1965 Dexter’s production of THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN, which had starred Robert Stephens as the Inca king Atahualpa in England, came to New York with David Carradine in the role. I was excited to see that Dexter had infused a number of kabuki conventions into this highly theatrical work, and now to realize that, in my own tiny way, I'd had something to do with influencing a play in which the young Edward Petherbridge appeared.]

Other Viewpoints:

59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-ninth Street, NYC
Through June 28



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