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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

Lear.

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

actor.

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

King Lear, Princeton Rep Shakespeare Festival, Pettoranello

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

requested.


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