NY Theater Review by JK Clarke
Globe Theater’s touring production of King Lear is the fifth production of King Lear I’ve seen/reviewed in New York City this calendar year. Fifth! Chew on that a bit. In just 10 months there has been an average of one new Lear production every two months—most of them fairly major productions: from Frank Langella to John Lithgow; from The Globe to The Public. In different ways this is both wonderful and sad. For example, if you’re an actor who has finally landed a coveted role in this, one of Shakespeare’s most esteemed plays, it would have been a zenith in your career, a moment on the grandstand! . . . Only to find out there are four others up there on the platform with you. But, nevermind, because here (at Theater Pizzazz) we’re concerned most of all with the audience, the lovers and partakers of great theater. And, for us—to quote Olivia in Twelfth Night at the discovery that there are identical versions of her lover Cesario—the gift of five productions of King Lear in 2014, is “Most wonderful!”
This cuts to the very essence of theater. It is not uncommon to see, in a lifetime, multiple productions of any number of plays, particularly Shakespeare. One production lives through its unique run on stage then, like a dwarf star, burns out and dies. Another version come along and is very different in its own way and we learn something new from it. Each production has its similarities, but mostly it is notable in its differences from its predecessors. And that is what makes theater great.
The Globe’s production is particularly interesting because it’s meant—in the spirit of the original Globe theater—to be an outdoor performance on a fine summer day. A play to be consumed in the company of a picnic basket and wine in plastic cups. The Globe players have even brought along their compact, portable set (Jonathan Fensom) that has the look and feel of a late 19th century miner’s shack, though the play doesn’t feel set in one particular period or another. And, at NYU’s Skirball Center (where it concludes its two week run on October 12), it is played with the house lights up to simulate the outdoor environment. Prior to curtain, the actors (again, in Globe tradition) meander around the theater and mingle with the audience. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to overhear the very talented Bethan Cullinane, who plays both Cordelia and the Fool (which is believed to be how the role was played in Elizabethan times), talk about her excitement at having her first opportunity to spend time in New York City; or, perhaps you’ll bump into a merry and affable Joseph Marcell, who is starring as Lear, strolling down your aisle. Marcell, who seems more physically and temperamentally suited to be cast as the Fool is nonetheless a terrific actor, and handles the role of Lear with aplomb, though with a slightly different attitude than the Lear to whom we are accustomed.
This Lear is slightly mad from the outstart, his connection to a Pagan belief system more pronounced: when he calls out to the gods of, say, Jupiter, he seems to be appealing to, rather than thundering at them. He brings to mind, at times, Mel Brooks playing the whacky Louis XVI in the film The History of the World, Pt 1. This Lear, both person and production, is a lighter take on a usually overwhelming and devastating tragedy. One normally walks away from Lear having had a good cry and with a heavy heart. Here we see something more melodramatic: oh those darned nasty daughters of his! How can they be so dastardly and mean? And even the gory removal of Gloucester’s eyes is punctuated with them being thrown off-stage like superballs (they even bounce). The mood is punctuated by joyous, full cast renditions (and most actors play, quite capably, multiple roles) of songs usually ascribed the Fool.
Though it is unusual to witness a production of Lear so light-hearted, it is a welcome varietal, particularly in this year of so many versions. It allows us to experience the text and story in nuanced ways that we might not have considered before. Director Bill Buckhurst and his cast of splendid actors make King Lear a unique experience at a time that wouldn’t have seemed possible.
King Lear. Through October 12 at NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (556 LaGuardia Place @ Washington Square South). www.nyuskirball.org