Sunday, January 19, 2014

‘King Lear’: The Play’s The Thing to Celebrate With the Splendid Frank Langella in the Lead

Frank Langella as King Lear

When you think about it, the title really does say it all.

Shakespeare called his play King Lear—not The Former King Lear, or King Lear, Retired.  And therein lies the key to understanding the declawed lion who at turns is regal, miserable, nasty, confused, and pitiable. 

We all know the outline of the plot: an elderly king abdicates, intending to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, presumably to insure the peaceful transfer of power to the next generation.  But, of course, from the moment he moves to bring this about, problems arise, brought on by his failure to understand the personal and political ramifications of his actions.  

King Lear is a very complex play, with multiple characters who are complex in their own right.  In addition there is a varying shift of tone that can be confusing.  Parts of the play read as very Elizabethan, while others take on the blood-lust-and-greed qualities of Jacobean drama.  As an aside, I’ll mention that such a duality also is evident in Timon of Athens, written at approximately the same time and about which it has been speculated that Shakespeare shared the writing credits with Thomas Middleton, a master of Jacobean gore. 

Whether King Lear is the work of Shakespeare alone or the result of a collaboration, I’ll leave to the scholars to fight over. Regardless, I will say that reading the play can certainly be a challenge, not only with the conflicting styles but also with the inclusion of characters who have similar-sounding names (Edgar and Edmund), or who shift into different roles that come and go (Edgar and “Poor Tom”), or who are pretty much interchangeable (Goneril and Regan).  And, for that matter, do we really need both the noble Kent and the noble Gloucester to make the point? 

Thankfully, with a good production such as the one now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, King Lear is much easier to comprehend (though I’ll confess I’m still not having much luck differentiating Goneril from Regan).  A strong cast, with several standouts, along with sharp directing by Angus Jackson, help keep the audience glued to the action for the three-hour running time. 

But, of course, everything hangs on the actor in the title role.  And what a thrill it is to watch Frank Langella, at the age of 76, as he wrestles with and ultimately conquers the highly demanding and exhausting portrayal of this great mythic personality. 

There are many ways to interpret the role of King Lear.  Here Mr. Langella gives us a Lear who has known nothing but deference to his every whim for most of his life, like some protected pop star surrounded always by his fawning entourage.

That he expects to maintain his regal lifestyle after giving up the throne makes perfect sense. That he fails to understand his daughters also makes perfect sense as well, for who would expect an all-powerful king to have been closely involved in the lives of his offspring?  It follows, as well, that whatever obeisance they may owe him, expecting filial love from any of his daughters (including, yes, Cordelia) is to seek what is not possible.

Thus Regan (Lauren O'Neil) and Goneril (Catherine McCormack) proffer false and formalized words of love at Lear’s behest in order to get what they want. Their younger sister, Cordelia (Isabella Laughland), either out of honesty or naiveté, is more straightforward in the speech that sets off Lear’s downward spiral:  “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”

The explosion triggered by Cordelia’s words marks the beginning of the end, as Lear disinherits her on the spot and ties his anticipated retirement years to the mercies of the other two—a foolish misjudgment that, coupled with a deepening mental fog associated with senility, lead to his utter and complete descent into the nothingness that only mere mortals would recognize as the closing arc of life.

Wondrous it is to watch Langella as he shapes the rise and fall of Lear’s descent through anger, hurt, sadness, despair, unbridled rage, and, eventually, periods of gentleness, understanding, and acceptance until the very end. 

Through his journey, he is aided by his fellow actors, especially Denis Conway (marvelous as Gloucester) and by Steven Pacey as Kent, both of whom have a terrific grasp of their roles and of performing Shakespeare.  Harry Melling as the Fool, and Sebastian Armesto in the dual role of Edgar/Poor Tom are both very good as well.  And while I could live without the onstage rainstorm (a bit of technological magic that seems overindulgent), the production itself is well-conceived and generally unfussy.

Whether you are a connoisseur of King Lear or you have yet to see a production, this is certainly a good one to attend, if only for the first-class performance by Mr. Langella. 

On the other hand, you might want to wait out the cold of winter to see what the Theater for a New Audience has in store at its new home right around the corner from the Harvey.  Its version of King Lear, starring Michael Pennington, begins March 14 and runs to May 4.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

'Loot:'' Joe Orton's Anarchic Comedy In Madcap Revival By Red Bull Theater

Inspector Truscott of Scotland Yard is keeper of the keys in the land of Topsy-Turvydom in Red Bull Theater’s madcap revival of Joe Orton’s Loot.

Loot was one of three full-length plays (the others were Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and What The Butler Saw) that Orton penned between 1964 and the time of his brutal death three years later at the hands of his long-time lover Kenneth Halliwell. 

With his death, Orton’s quick-fire output solidified his legacy and his reputation as an iconoclastic writer who used dark humor to skewer the Church and persons in positions of authority. 

Although Orton provided Loot with a wafer thin plot and occasional swerves in tone, the play is anarchically comical, like the best of the Marx Brothers movies (e.g. Duck Soup). 

The “Groucho” of the play is Inspector Truscott, performed here to the very edge of manic madness by Rocco Sisto. Truscott has invaded the home of the McLeavy family just as they are about to hold funeral services for the recently deceased Mrs. McLeavy. He is ostensibly investigating the theft of a large sum of money (of which the McLeavys’ son Hal and Hal’s undertaker buddy Dennis are, indeed, guilty).

In order to conceal their crime, the miscreants have pulled the corpse out of the coffin and replaced it with the “loot.” Thereon hangs the plot.  But all of this is merely an excuse for Orton’s quite funny dialog, in which it is possible to find echoes of Oscar Wilde, W. S. Gilbert, Lewis Carroll, and the aforementioned Marx Brothers. 

Truscott, who despite having the best lines, represents what Orton saw as the stupidity, the oafishness, and the corruption of the police. There is, for example, a scene in which he smacks around one of the suspects—a bit of realism that does shock us out of the comic absurdity of most of the rest of the proceedings (as does a reference to Pakastani child prostitutes). With Orton, what you see is what you get.

Truly, though, Truscott is an inspired invention. All through Act I, he justifies his takeover of the McLeavy household by insisting he is a representative of the “Water Board,” there to inspect the plumbing. (Although Orton clearly was not referring to “waterboarding,” that does add an appropriately contemporary image he would undoubtedly appreciate as another opportunity to wag a finger at authority figures).

When Truscott is finally forced to confess his subterfuge, he brushes it off this way:  “Any deception I practiced was never intended to deceive you,” a line that Oscar Wilde would have been delighted to lay claim to.  

Another gem is Truscott’s boastful story of how he broke the case of “the limbless girl killer.”

            “Who would kill a limbless girl?” he is asked, as
            a picture out of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus 
            pops into mind. 

            “She was the killer!” he explains, though he 
            refuses to elucidate lest it trigger a run of 
            copycat crimes.   

Try wrapping your head around that image. 

Loot is full of these fantasmagorical twists of language that are constantly flying around the set—along with Mrs. McLeavy’s mummified body (Another Truscott-ism: “The theft of a pharaoh is something which had not crossed my mind”). 

Even though Orton undoubtedly planned the set pieces carefully so as to allow for the word play, most of these bon mots feel anything but forced; rather they seem a logical reflection of the crazed minds of Inspector Truscott and the other characters. These include Hal (Nick Westrate); Dennis (Ryan Garbayo); another member of the police force, Meadows (Eric Martin Brown); Mr. McLeavy (who, as played by Jarlath Conroy, equals Mr. Sisto as master of the requisite tone and timing of Orton’s twisted variation on farce); and Fay (Rebecca Brooksher), the homicidal nurse and devout Catholic who—having worked her way through seven husbands, all deceased—is eyeing the others in search of Number Eight. 

Red Bull Theater, helmed by its founding artistic director Jesse Berger, built its reputation over the past decade by offering rarely produced Jacobean dramas and other plays of “heightened language,” along with a well-regarded program of readings. It is good to see the company expanding into producing contemporary works like Loot. 

Coming up in the spring will be a revival of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, another outlandish work that is right up Red Bull’s alley.  Should be fun!  Meanwhile, there’s Loot, which is set to run to February 9 at the Lucille Lortel Theater. 

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Friday, January 10, 2014

'Machinal': Stunning Revival by Roundabout Theatre Company

Resurrecting old theatrical treasures is a real art. Far too many efforts at reviving early twentieth century works turn out to be lost causes—with presentations of plays that are painfully dated and creaky despite their respected place in drama history. Without naming names, let’s just say there have been an unfortunate number of these on view in the past few years.    

So it’s decidedly hats-off time in salute to the Roundabout Theatre Company and its artistic director, Todd Haimes, who have thus far this season given us two absolutely first-rate revivals at the American Airlines Theatre.

We had thought we had struck a lucky vein of gold this past October with Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, featuring a marvelous cast headed up by Roger Rees under the razor sharp direction of Lindsay Posner.

But as good as that was, it is the current production of Sophie Treadwell’s 1928 masterpiece, Machinal, that raises the ante and exchanges gold for diamonds.

Machinal, which hitherto had not been seen on Broadway since its initial run 85 years ago, is a powerhouse work that takes us inside of the mind of a sadly disturbed young woman accused of committing a cold-blooded murder. 

Sophie Treadwell, a successful playwright and journalist, based the play on an actual incident. But instead of merely recounting the facts, she turned the story into a stunning expressionistic drama about her protagonist, Helen, brilliantly portrayed in this production by British actress Rebecca Hall.

It is quite possible to view Machinal as a cautionary tale about a woman trapped within the very limited options allowed by social norms. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Helen has tried to fit into the tightly bound life she feels is her only option—in this case taking care of her mother, holding down a job as a clerk/typist, marrying the boss, and having a child.  But the more she tries to conform, the more anxious and panicky she feels, so that by the time we get to know her, she is the living embodiment of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream.

But Ms. Treadwell is not Ibsen, nor does she seek to be. She is more interested in examining Helen’s psyche than in laying blame on her significant others or Society. Yes, her mother (Suzanne Bertish) is annoying and her husband (Michael Cumpsty) is oblivious, but neither of them is particularly monstrous. Yet Helen is disgusted beyond endurance by both of them, and, as well, she feels no bond whatsoever with her daughter. 

To contemporary eyes, Helen suffers from a range of psychiatric disorders for which there now exist treatments and therapies: clinical depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, attachment disorder.  Unfortunately, she is forced to pull herself through day after day without any support, and the play is at least as much an indictment of the society’s lack of attention to mental illness as it is about the stifling of women. 

For Helen, the only time she finds even a glimmer of relief is when she meets a man (Morgan Spector) in a pick-up bar and has her first and only romantic and sexual fling.  She endows in him her long repressed dreams of her imagined rescuer, though their relationship is short-lived and he moves on. With all hope gone, the act of violence that leads Helen to her fate is pretty much inevitable.  And even as we sympathize with her, we do so with the understanding that her plight has extended to envelop others, including her mother, husband, and child. 

The entire cast of Machinal is excellent, with several of the actors taking on multiple and distinct roles. And Lyndsey Turner’s direction, Es Devlin’s set design, and Jane Cox’s lighting design are truly inspired. Together, they give Helen’s psyche a physical and nightmarish presence. The opening scene hits us smack on by perfectly encapsulating Helen’s emotional state without a word being spoken—the personification of New York anxiety.   

The could turn out to be a banner year for Roundabout, what with the upcoming productions of Cabaret, Violet, and The Real Thing, and the pair of winners at the American Airlines Theater, not to mention the splendid array of works at the Laura Pels, where a revival of David Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize winner Dinner With Friends is about to open.

Kudos to Machinal.  And kudos to Roundabout and to all involved!

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