by: Susan Hasho
True story: actor Edward Petherbridge was cast as King Lear and on the second day of rehearsals he had a stroke, leaving him barely able to move. Out of that life event came a play, this improvisationally developed theatre piece called My Perfect Mind. The play is directed by Kathryn Hunter, and co-stars Paul Hunter the co-founder and artistic director of Told by an Idiot, a company that, since 1993, has built a reputation on creating inventive, unexpected theater.
We are introduced to this event by a Doctor (Paul Hunter) sporting an obviously silly wig and describing the patient Edward Petherbridge’s condition in—an also silly—German accent. Petherbridge then arrives and tries to orient himself to a raked platform, table and chairs precariously placed on it. He declares, “It looks either slapdash or pretentious. Slapdash and pretentiousness are two sides of the same coin. Discuss.” He has been described by the Doctor as a man who is in a dangerous condition with a fictitious persona created by himself. We learn here, as throughout this play, that the truth is relative depending on who is speaking and as whom they are speaking. Petherbridge shifts from himself to Lear to Lear’s daughter Goneril. Paul Hunter plays everybody else, including Cordelia another daughter. Both actors are in the style of (to be pretentious) improv/vaudeville/Waiting for Godot/and an indescribable effort to express.
About ten minutes into watching these two actors play around as the Doctor and Petherbridge himself, Lear and various Lear daughters, Paul Hunter makes an announcement. After throwing off his Doctor’s wig he proclaims, “Edward. Edward. I don’t think we should start the show like this…I’m a bit worried about my German accent. I think it might be borderline offensive?” They begin again with a scene from King Lear. And so it goes, shifting from the play King Lear to the actors themselves, to a delightful experience described of Edward’s working on The Royal Hunt of the Sun in 1964 with the Old Vic Theatre. There then ensues Edward’s stroke, him in the hospital, and the story passes into a mix of diagnosis, treatment, and moves into a rehearsal, and so on. The mix of two actors, shifting characters, Lear, life event all moving through and around each other is the fun of this piece. The language is clever and quick, the actors a tad manic and quicksilver funny—then, of course, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays is strung throughout.
There is, however, something missing. This experience wasn’t riveting, wasn’t really as funny as it could have been. There was a sort of constant air of let’s rip through this in a pleasant manner that belies the great premise they’ve set up for themselves. There is so much promise in the setup of actor meeting a physical and artistic melt down and dealing with huge loss in a sharply comedic way. In My Perfect Mind, the edges are missing, the depth skirted around. Presenting scenes from Shakespeare’s King Lear doesn’t compensate for the lack of emotional depth in the portrayal of Petherbridge’s stroke. This play could have been desperately funny. It is however, and nonetheless, a joy to watch Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge be the consummate performers they are.
My Perfect Mind is part of the 2015 Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022 212-753-5959 www.59E59.org
Photos: Manuel Harlan