NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
Apart from New York, there does not exist another city in the world where, in the space of five months, one can see three separate, exceptional productions of Shakespeare’s King Lear. That’s the count so far in 2014, and all of these within a few blocks from one another in Brooklyn. The latest, at Theater 2020, is the smallest and lowest budget of the three, but nonetheless has as much heart and is a proportionally substantive performance. In all likelihood, the reason we are so fortunate is that there are so many top shelf actors in our area who are grateful to have the opportunity to act in this outstanding tragedy. Bully for us.
This production is no frills and driven by fine acting from a deeply experienced cast with extensive Shakespeare credentials. Director Judith Jarosz has made some daring casting decisions — including making Kent a woman. Eileen Glenn is exceptional in the role of Kent, which is given added, more fascinating dimension when, in lieu of her exile, she masquerades as a man servant to Lear. This gender switching is very much in line with so many other Shakespeare plays, from Twelfth Night (in which Viola masquerades as manservant to Count Orsino) to As You Like It (in which Rosalind roams the forest of Arden as “Jove’s own page” Ganymede) and doesn’t, for a moment, seem out of place here.
Lear, of course, is the story of a King (the very regal David Fuller) who, in preparation for his declining years (he is said to be 80) attempts to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, touching off a cascading series of disappointments, betrayals and, ultimately, war. So, when Lear ends up on his own, it is his most fervent allies who help restore our (and his) faith in humanity. Thus the ever loyal Kent here is most interesting as an almost maternal and nurturing, but tough soldier, making the casting of Ms. Glenn all the more fascinating. Lear’s Fool (Justin Bennett) is also vital to his moral restoration, and here his wit is not so biting as it can be. He is a caring Fool, funny and adoring, but not so acerbic as he is sometimes cast. And even the Duke of Gloucester (a resonant, powerful and paternal Kim Sullivan), once his vision has been restored by the plucking out of his eyes (and he has been set back on the correct pathway), is the very picture of tender-hearted friendship. But, in this production it is Edgar (played as sharp-witted, all while innocent and naïve, by Marc Andrew Hem Lee) who is the true constant. When he masquerades as Poor Tom the beggar he is truly bewildered, frightened and let down by the chain of events that have left him homeless. “Poor Tom’s a-cold,” indeed. Hem Lee’s wide-eyed, soft-voiced exasperation fulfills the role perfectly. And his step-brother, Edmund (played terrifically as smooth, calm and evil by Matt Bernhard), is his ideally calculating, maleficent counterpart.
Director Jarosz has indeed put together a very entertaining and introspective King Lear. The production’s only shortcomings are sonic. That the play is presented in the lovely, yet acoustically perfect St. Charles Barolomom church presents some problems. Here where whispers are meant to travel to the very reaches of the structure, the actors’ projections are, at times, almost overwhelming, particularly those with a natural ability to project. The thunderstorm sound effects, which bring to mind rattling sheet metal rather than actual thunder, are so loud and distracting that it’s difficult to focus on the dialog. That experience will clearly change when the production is moved outdoors to Brooklyn Bridge Park.
It is a fine production of an outstanding play, worth seeing indoors, or out — where it will be in a few weeks time. Though it’s certainly worth traveling for, the local communities around Brooklyn Heights have the great fortune of having a (yet another) delightful, affordable production in their backyard, but this time for a ticket price on par with a trip to the cinema. Lear is a play that should be seen by old and young alike (especially with its visceral lessons in morality) and this is the perfect opportunity.
King Lear. Indoors through June 8 (Friday – Sunday) at St. Charles Borromeo Church (1 Aitken Place/19 Sidney Place between Joralemon and State Streets – Brooklyn Heights) and Outdoors (June 13, 14, and 15) at The Granite Prospect on Pier One in Brooklyn Bridge Park (Brooklyn) www.theater2020.com