Nothing particularly revelatory here. I had the opportunity to see The Play that Goes Wrong while I was in London. It’s a fun show. It’s a very fun show. I have nothing to add to what seems to be commonplace knowledge. If you want a show where you can turn off your brain and just laugh, this is the one. I would argue that it is better than Noises Off, which peaks in the second act with a third act that just doesn’t quite deliver the same oomph. I’m just happy that a show that started as fringe theatre has had so much success on both sides of the Atlantic. And kudos too to Seán Carey, who understudied for Leonard Cook the night I saw it. I didn’t notice until later that he was not a regular performer.
In The Empty Space, Peter Brook argued that one of the reasons contemporary productions of William Shakespeare’s plays were so deadly (as in boring) was because actors were so familiar with the material that they played the end of the play from the start. He used as an example Goneril and Regan’s professions of love for their father in the opening scene of King Lear. Professional actresses would transfer their characters’ final descent into villainy to their introductory appearance thus robbing themselves and the audience of any sense of journey. I am pleased to report that the production of King Lear currently performing at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City has taken Brook’s injunction seriously and have escaped the pitfalls that have plagued so many other productions of the tragedy.
Director Alberto Bonilla and his ensemble focus on developing strong, complex, and believable characters. Bonilla moves the setting forward to a facility for ailing seniors. Lear (Austin Pendleton) suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia, or potentially both, and the narrative of Lear plays out as a product of that illness. Pendleton has had a long, storied, and artistically rich career on both stage and screen, and he does not conform to the traditional image of Lear. Those who have assayed the role in the past – such as James Earl Jones or Laurence Olivier – can easily access bombast in their construction of the role. Pendleton takes a counter-intuitive turn. His style of acting is quiet and modest. He underplays where most others would over-play. He strays from received ideas about what Shakespearean performance should be and instead utilizes an acting approach more in keeping with an American sense of psychological realism. It is Lear by way of Willy Loman or Joe Keller. It is bound to be a controversial choice, but I think it pays dividend, especially in light of Brook’s argument.
What we therefore have is something I have never seen in a production of the play before: a full and intimate picture of the Lear family. British playwright Howard Barker wondered what became of Mrs. Lear and wrote his own Seven Lears to find out; he would have less to wonder about if he were to see this production. Pendleton, along with Elizabeth A. Davis (Once) as Goneril and Melissa Macleod as Regan, have brought the whole dark and dysfunctional history of this family onto the stage. This Lear does not bellow, but he laughs, he smirks, he cajoles, and we feel every smile as a lash on the backs of his two elder daughters. If they were not abused, they were certainly dominated and emotionally manipulated by a capricious and over-bearing patriarch. Even when they band together with the full power of the state behind them to deny him his entire retinue, they are still afraid of him. When Lear proclaims “I am more sinned against than sinning”, it is almost laughable here. In the hands of Davis and Macleod, Goneril and Regan’s choices are understandable and full of the contradictory greys that mark human choice in harrowing circumstances. When Lear attacks Goneril and wishes her a barren existence, our sympathies are with the daughter (it helps that Davis is obviously pregnant). This is a family with a penchant a la Albee for tearing into one another. The difference is that Lear makes a course correction and in abandoning power moves toward redemption, while his children continue on in their quest for power. Pendleton, Davis, and Maclead have created a Lear that is not just tragedy of Lear but also of Goneril and Regan – we cannot fully hate them nor can we fully forgive him for his responsibility in the play’s inevitable descent into darkness – and that is refreshing indeed.
Mounting a production of Shakespeare, especially on a tight showcase rehearsal schedule, presents a director a series of choices. Emphasize x, and you have to take the spotlight off of y. In focusing on Lear and his family, in fully grappling with their psychology and complexity, means less attention is given to the larger political reality of the play or world-building. King Lear has at its center a demonstrably irresponsible head-of-state who manipulates family and advisers (and the line between both is blurred) and sends his nation careening into chaos not because of threats from abroad but from self-inflicted wounds; it obviously speaks to our present moment. The larger geo-political implications of Lear’s choices got a little bit lost in the proceedings, and the design choice to confine the drama within the domestic sphere further isolated the impact of the tragedy from larger societal ramifications. I saw Bonilla’s excellent Macbeth (also at the Secret) a few years back, and the focus there was the opposite of here. World-building was at the forefront, and so there was less revelatory in terms of character exploration. What I look for in a Shakespeare production is to be shown something new or surprising in a canon I am all too familiar with. Bonilla, Pendleton, Davis, and Macleod made me want to spend time with these characters, and they found something both unexpected and deeply satisfying in the construction.
Also of note are Alexander Stine, who somehow managed to take the sanctimony out of the Duke of Albany and find both the darkness and the light in the part; Arthur Lazalde and Zachary Clark, who dive into Kent and Edmund respectively with great gusto; and most especially Jack Herholdt, whose portrayal of The Fool is quite simply brilliant. I had seen Herholdt as Dionysus in his own reworking of The Bacchae, and he never fails to captivate whenever on stage.
King Lear runs through April 9th. More information about the show can be found here: http://www.secrettheatre.com/KingLear.html