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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `King Lear’
Producing a play can be a lot like making a vegetable
stir-fry. Sometimes, although one has chosen excellent ingredients
and everything seems hot, juicy, and well prepared, the individual
tastes haven’t had a chance to blend into one satisfying flavor. Broccoli tastes like broccoli; snowpeas simply taste like snowpeas.
Such is the case with the Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival’s current
production of William Shakespeare’s "King Lear." Despite a
skilled young cast and some individually excellent performances —
including Alicia Goranson, late of television’s "Roseanne"
— the total effect is not altogether satisfying. "King Lear"
will be onstage, under the stars, at Princeton’s Pettoranello Amphitheater
in Community Park North, Thursday through Sunday evenings at 7 p.m.
through September 1.
After opening the summer with a delightful production of "As You
Like It," expectations were high for Princeton Rep’s first foray
into Shakespearean tragedy. And although "King Lear" is certainly
one of the masterworks of Western literature, it is notoriously difficult
to produce. Some scholars and theater-goers believe it may be better
read from the page and given the rich but dense text, there is some
logic to this idea.
King Lear (Richard Bourg) announces that he is dividing his kingdom
among his three daughters, Gonerill (Fay Ann Lee), Regan (Nell Gwynn),
and his youngest and favorite, Cordelia (Alicia Goranson). After the
king invites his daughters to declare their love for him, the opportunistic
Regan and Gonerill heap on the flattery. Cordelia, however, only offers
a few simple words of love. This enrages Lear who promptly disinherits
her and offers her, without dowery, to her suitors, the King of France
(Jason Weiss) and the Duke of Burgundy (Ryan Quinn). Recognizing a
good thing when he sees it, France takes her as his wife. When the
Earl of Kent (George Tynan Crowley) attempts to intercede for Cordelia,
he is banished. Gonerill and Regan immediately begin to conspire against
Meanwhile, the Gloucester family is suffering similar troubles. The
elderly Earl of Gloucester (Burt Edwards) is deceived by his illegitimate
son Edmund (Eric Alperin) into believing that his eldest son Edgar
(Tom Biglin) is plotting to kill him. Edgar flees. Kent, disguised
as the commoner Caius, returns to help Lear, just as Gonerill manages
to enrage the king. Lear then departs for Regan’s home but she bars
the king from entry. With the continuous patter of the Fool (Goranson)
by his side, Lear heads to the heath where he rages wildly against
the storm. Widespread death and betrayal follow, until only Edgar,
Kent, and Gonerill’s husband, Albany (Erik Sherr), are left alive
to restore sanity and order.
Alicia Goranson is quietly effective as both the loyal Cordelia and
the verbally pungent Fool. As Cordelia, she has a gentle and unassuming
stage presence, appropriate to her character, but nonetheless surprising
in someone who continues to be (in syndication) such a big part of
so many people’s regular television viewing lives. As the Fool, she
is goofily comic, something out of a Looney Tune, offering up painful
truths to the deposed king as if she had butterflies floating around
in her head. Her occasional musical excursions, singing and plucking
a mandolin to her own original music, add warmth and a tender humanity
to the evening, providing some of the best moments of the show.
While Richard Bourg is effective as Lear, it is his burden to find
humanity and sympathy for a character who is largely unsympathetic.
Over time, his ranting becomes tiresome, always delivered at the same
pacing and pitch, making one wonder just what Cordelia, Kent, and
Gloucester see in him. Like a madman on a street corner raging about
the apocalypse, after a while it’s too easy to dismiss his words.
This is despite the fact that he is well-rehearsed and clearly a strong
Nell Gwynn gives an excellent performance as the wantonly cruel daughter
Regan. After lustily watching her husband Cornwall pluck out Gloucester’s
eyes, she screeches "Go thrust him out at gates and let him smell
his way to Dover!" with a ravishing lusciousness.
Eric Alperin, seen in the comic role of Touchstone in "As You
Like It" brings power to the consummately evil Edmund. Relishing
the role, he acts between the lines, laying out subtle levels of meaning
with simply a glint in his eye or a barely discernible curl to his
lip. Together, Gwynn and Alperin provide much of the sexual punch
to a production that often lacks passion.
Michael Warner as Cornwall is also freshly evil, plucking
out eyeballs with an unsettling enthusiasm. Yet he still manages to
create real sense of inner life in a small role; one finds oneself
wishing he hadn’t died quite so soon. After a slow start, Erik Sherr
as Albany develops a real presence, as does Tom Biglin as Edgar. After
some initial awkwardness, George Tynan Crowley also settles into his
role as Kent, more comfortable as the simple Caius. Burt Edwards as
Gloucester and Fay Ann Lee as Gonerill are steady.
The outdoor Pettoranello Amphitheater, nestled along a hillside with
geese circling overhead and cicadas singing in the nearby trees, is
a lovely setting to watch Shakespeare and director Victoria Liberatori
uses it well. Watching Lear and his Fool disappear together along
a pathway beside a glimmering pond creates a very special ambiance
that adds to the general warmth of the production.
Aside from these subtle touches, Liberatori keeps her direction straight-forward
and workmanlike, without a lot of extraneous movement or theatricalization,
allowing the text of the play be the center point of the show. She
lets her actors act, trusting them to convey the play’s myriad offerings
of emotion and strategic machinations. David Esler’s set design is
similarly functional, without a lot of frills. Jason Weiss’ fight
direction is believable and possesses a real stageworthy elegance.
On the whole, Princeton Rep is a terrific theater company that has
regularly created some of the area’s freshest summer theater. In its
opening days, "King Lear" lacks a degree of cohesiveness,
with each character still playing their part in relative isolation.
But that just might change as the production continues throughout
the month. Perhaps like a stir-fry that is allowed to stand overnight,
all the disparate flavors will yet blend into one tasty dish.
— Jack Florek
Garden, Community Park North, Route 206 and Mountain Avenue, 609-921-3682.
Free tickets at Thomas Sweet on Palmer Square or at theater on night
of show. Show runs Thursday through Sunday, to September 1. $10 donation
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