Friday, March 28, 2014

262. Review of KING LEAR (March 25, 2014)


That grizzled old monarch, King Lear, who foolishly gave his kingdom to his two unloving daughters and disinherited the one that truly loved him is back in downtown Brooklyn, right across the street from where he visited us earlier in the winter (it may now be spring, but it still feels like winter). In January he took the form of a tall, hulking, force of nature, in the person of 75-year-old American superstar Frank Langella; now he’s been incarnated as the slighter, and a bit younger (70) Michael Pennington, not a superstar, perhaps, but still one of England’s most highly respected classical actors. Brooklyn is proud to be the showcase for his first Lear, even before he ever attempts it in England.

Michael Pennington, Rachel Pickup. Photo: Carol Rosegg.  

The talented Arin Arbus directs Mr. Pennington in this latest revival of KING LEAR, with a supporting cast of mostly American actors (a few Brits are present as well), practically all of whom speak Shakespeare’s lines with English accents. Although Mr. Langella’s production avoided elaborate sets, it was like the Ziegfeld Follies compared to Mr. Pennington’s stripped- down edition, with designer Riccardo Hernandez providing only an occasional chair or small table for furniture, so that the action can be totally focused on the actors. Of course, there’s a heavy reliance on strikingly atmospheric lighting (Marcus Doshi), dynamic sound (Nicholas Pope and Michaël Attias), and haunting music (Mr. Attias), but, unlike the Langella version, there’s no actual deluge during the storm scene. The set is little more than a rectangular floor suggesting tarnished metal, with a similarly tarnished and unadorned upstage wall that leans forward as the play progresses, and, like the bridge of a moat, is gradually let all the way down at the end, revealing a scarily lit, box-like room inside.  
Bianca Amato, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Ms. Arbus’s production goes light on cleverness for its own sake and there's very little that is interpretively unusual. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are in the familiar mode of early 20th-century militarism, even those worn by Regan and Goneril, and all are in earth tones of brown, rust, black, and green. One novel touch, although possibly seen in some other production, is introduced when Oswald (Mark H. Dold) and Goneril (Rachel Pickup) enter while tidying up their clothes after some presumed offstage hanky panky, suggesting that Goneril’s steward is also her lover. The characterizations of all the leads, including Kent (Timothy D. Stickney), Gloucester (Christopher McCann), Edmund (Chandler Williams), Regan (Bianca Amato), Cordelia (Lilly Englert), Edgar (Jacob Fishel), and the Fool (Jake Horowitz) aren’t notably different from those in most standard productions; most (I take exception to the Fool, probably a hopeless role, at any rate) are well acted and intelligently spoken, which is about as much as you can hope for in any revival of the play.

Jacob Fishel, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lily Englert, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Mr. Pennington’s Lear is more down to earth and recognizably human than Mr. Langella’s, which had a more grandiose and theatrical flair. His opening scene, when he divides his kingdom, using a small map on a narrow tabletop, is brisk and businesslike, and his reaction to Cordelia’s behavior makes him so convincingly disappointed that we wonder why, in all this man’s life, he never before had occasion to notice his daughter’s independent spirit and refusal to kowtow to his power. Shakespeare has created this problem for Lear, and making his response seem plausible is probably an insurmountable task for any actor; Mr. Pennington comes close to making us feel that, perhaps, he’ll come around and see the light. His long scene with Goneril and Regan about how many men they’ll allow him to keep excellently conveys his frustration and disgruntlement. At the end of the play, reduced to a shell of the man he once was, Mr. Pennington touches all the right buttons of pathos and grief.
Lily Englert, Michael Pennington. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This is a commendable, well spoken, effectively staged KING LEAR. It is in no way groundbreaking or unusual, but can easily be recommended to those who’ve never seen the play. Seeing it in the intimate three-quarters round environment of the TFNA gives it an immediacy that enhances its power. It would now be nice to give this play a rest, but, as the gods would have it, John Lithgow is gearing up to do it this summer in Central Park. It's enough to make you leery of yet another KING LEAR.