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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the August 21, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Bard’s Home in the Park

Families may not find themselves as readily drawn to

Princeton Rep’s month-long production of Shakespeare’s tragic "King

Lear" as to the madcap romance of this season’s "As You Like

It." But families that do seize the opportunity to see the darker

"Lear" in live performance will find themselves at center

stage.

Although kings and nobles appear to tread the boards, these characters’

concerns are the concerns of families. Furthermore, the poetry Shakespeare

pours into his emotion-laden text will strike many a familiar chord.

For its soaring verse is the source of ideas and imagery that lurk

in the very bedrock of contemporary Western thought.

The play follows parallel stories of two noble fathers brought down

by their families. Each father, King Lear and the Earl of Gloucester,

has both good children and downright evil ones. Their tales explore

the way that, to the child, a parent can be both a protector and a

tyrant; and to a parent, a child may be the loving supporter of our

old age and also a threatening rival and eventual usurper.

Our most familiar family conflicts are here in heightened form. We

hear the Fool tell the temperamental old King Lear: "Thou shouldst

not have been old till thou hadst been wise." And we hear a father

say, "How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless

child."

"The plays of Shakespeare have to be seen," says Princeton

Rep’s artistic director Victoria Liberatori, who also believes there

is no place more glorious to experience Shakespeare than outdoors.

New York’s now-legendary Shakespeare in the Park outdoor performances

have become a national model. Princeton’s current production, set

in the beautiful greensward of Pettoranello Amphitheater in Community

Park North continues, Thursday through Sunday, to September 1.

"When you look at the text, it is meant to be performed —

I don’t believe you should come to it from an academic point of view,"

she insists, "it should be in the mouths of actors. We’ve seen

a great revival of Shakespeare in recent years. And the more people

get to see Shakespeare, the more they want to see."

Having outgrown its annual weekend of outdoor performances

at Palmer Square, the company moved to Pettoranello Gardens in 2000

with "Midsummer Night’s Dream" and "Taming of the Shrew."

A year’s banishment from the park for some worthwhile site improvements

ended this July with the season opener, "As You Like It."

At a performance of "King Lear" last weekend, reflected light

on the still lake, and the sound of birds, crickets, cicadas, and

low-flying geese were all part of the play’s mise-en-scene. And the

intimacy of the simple amphitheater is such that when Gloucester’s

wicked son Edmund addresses the audience directly, confiding in us

that "our father’s love is to the bastard," we feel he is

speaking to us alone.

"The cicadas have increased quite a bit. We now have to project

voices over sounds we didn’t have in July," says Liberatori. The

mixture of sounds, however, is offset by the captivating sight of

the cast of characters tramping through the landscape, along pathways

and up over the hill, cementing the vortex of geography that is "King

Lear."

Choosing to produce its first tragedy was a challenge for Princeton

Rep. After producing most of the comedies, she says "we thought

it was time for our company to tackle a tragedy of this size."

"King Lear is the most compelling and captivating of any of Shakespeare

tragedies," says Liberatori. "Every time I see it I am endlessly

amazed at how deep these characters are and the resonances the play

has on a larger metaphysical level. Yet as in all Shakespeare, the

play is based in real relationships. These are real families."

"Essentially the dramatic force of the play comes from this devastating

domestic tragedy: fathers and daughter and fathers and sons. The language

is very simple and direct, and in that it is quite modern and not

hard to understand." Liberatori says that although she found the

play difficult to interpret as a teenager, "returning to it this

year, I found the language was so clear to me."

One of the reasons Liberatori picked "King Lear" is her King

Lear, actor Richard Bourg. Bourg was brought into the company in 2000

for the mature role of Gremio in "The Taming of the Shrew."

"Bourg has a dignity and yet a vulnerability that I think is very

difficult to find in actors," she says. "He is also a truly

gifted actor with a lot of classical experience."

As the craggy, sometimes demented King Lear, Bourg plays the failing

old king with conviction. But it’s also a role that requires tremendous

stamina. When I ask Liberatori just how old the real Richard Bourg

is she has a surprising reply. "I don’t know his age because I

never ask actors their ages or their weight," she says. "I

think he’s in his 50s; he certainly is not in his 80s, which is Lear’s

age."

David Esler’s set design for the outdoor stage is uncomplicated and

functional. A black scaffold of screens flank a pair of silver doors

that are hung with dark red velvet curtains.

"My concept for Lear was entirely metaphorical, the setting was

completely unlocalized," she says. "The themes of the play

are so large that I think it diminishes the play to set it in a particular

time and place. I think Shakespeare’s plays should be rendered faithfully

and not violate his original intent. So this setting is a parallel

universe: we can recognize ourselves, but it’s not here and it’s not

now."

Although Liberatori wants to keep the production distinct from the

here and now, on the whole, this King Lear’s court has a downtown

look. The men wear black — trench coats and dark suits — and

the Duke of Cornwall has natty wire-rimmed glasses. Edmund makes his

first appearance wearing sunglasses, and all three of Lear’s daughters

arrive to hear their father’s abdication clad in strikingly different

dresses and suits all of the same scarlet hue. Lear appears among

this stylish crew looking regal and undated in a long white robe and

jeweled coronet.

Some of the production’s sense of modernity also extends to the actors’

characterizations. Eric Alperin as the evil Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate

son, clearly relishes his role. His performance is impressive for

the way he begins the show in the manner of a sly and dishonest —

but relatively harmless — young adult. Yet as the plot unfolds,

we watch in horror as the young man ratchets up his determination,

pulls out all the stops to become the evil eye at the center of the

storm of treachery, betrayal, seduction, and murder. And George Tynan

Crowley, playing Kent, really comes into his own after his character

disguises himself as the commoner Caius. Then, with his blustery manner,

he becomes someone we could easily mistake for former WWF star, Minnesota

Governor Jesse Ventura.

Another audience draw is actor Alicia Goranson, who began her professional

life at age 12 in the role of Becky on the long running TV hit comedy

series, "Roseanne." She plays two roles: Lear’s youngest and

favorite daughter Cordelia and his loyal court Fool.

In Shakespeare’s company, the role of Lear’s Fool was

also played by a single actor, the Elizabethan clown Robert Armin,

Liberatori explains. "Shakespeare knew his actors and would write

a role for them. Armin’s present-day equivalent might be a combination

of Robin Williams and George Carlin," she says. Armin probably

played Dogberry (the comic police officer) in "Much Ado About

Nothing" and was also a playwright and author of a book entitled

"A Nest of Ninnies."

Goranson came to rehearsals with a strong concept of who the Fool

was. "I was thinking of a more conventional concept of the Fool

as being a more faithful type. Alicia’s approach was that this character

was more like an idiot savant, that this character was incapable of

not telling the truth. There’s love and devotion, but these are secondary

to the Fool’s role as truth teller," she says.

"It’s obvious to the Fool that Lear has made a tremendous mistake

and he tells him this. He asks, `Do you know what a bitter fool is?’

because the Fool, too, is a victim of Lear’s action."

Matched with this is the theme of God’s indifference to man, most

vividly invoked with the now famous lines: "As flies to wanton

boys, are we to th’Gods; They kill us for their sport."

Liberatori believes there is much truth is Shakespeare’s portraits

of family tragedy.

"In the first act, after Lear has banished Kent and sent his most

beloved daughter to France, the two sisters talk about the fact that

their father was always changeable," she says. "They never

knew when he was going to throw himself into a rage. This led to instability

in their lives and insecurity about their futures." She says the

fathers’ choices and actions have drastic consequences.

"There’s a theme of intergenerational conflict, of filial ingratitude.

However it’s also about parental responsibility, parental neglect,

and arrogance," she says. "Lear regards his children as possessions,

and he doesn’t feel they deserve his unconditional love. And Gloucester,

the only regard he has for his son Edmund is that he is symbol of

his youthful sexual prowess. How many times does Edmund have to hear

his father’s story of his sexual escapades? The fathers have sowed

the seeds and have to witness the horrible results. We could definitely

extrapolate these behaviors on a global scale."

— Nicole Plett

King Lear, Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, Pettoranello

Garden, Community Park North, 609-921-3682. Free tickets at Thomas

Sweet, Palmer Square, or at theater on night of show. Thursdays through

Sundays, to September 1. $10 donation requested.


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