Not Old, But Not Foolish, Either
Children's Shakespeare Theatre Company, Palisades Presbyterian Church, Palisades, New York
Friday, March 24, 2017
Directed by Diana Green
The Fool (Amalia Baker) takes cover from the storm under the space blanket of Queen Lear (Maeve Ryan) in the Children's Shakespeare Theatre production of William Shakespeare's King Lear regendered as Queen Lear. Photo by Diana Green, Children's Shakespare Theatre Company.
Some will point out, accusingly, that Maeve Ryan shouldn't play King Lear because she's a girl. I respond that she might be a high school senior, but she's a 10-year Shakespearean stage veteran. As for Lear's gender, the production's director, Children's Shakespeare Theatre Company Founding Artistic Director Diana Green, initially may have been thinking of skill sets within her company (cross-gendered casting is her common practice). However, in this case, regendering the title role of William Shakespeare's King Lear opens up so much potential by exploring the play's central conflict in mother-daughter terms, especially in the hands of teen-age girls playing those roles.
The production doesn't quite fulfill the promise of that proposition: certain textual cuts and setting the play in a postapocalyptic age undermines Green's thematic intentions in regendering King Lear as Queen Lear. Nevertheless, this is an engaging presentation of Shakespeare's play with some courageous performances and both an eye-gouging and a fight that create heart-racing theater.
CST comprises two acting corps, the Knaves (ages 8–14) and the Rogues (14–18). The latter performed Queen Lear, with Ryan making her final appearance with the company that she joined 10 years ago as a Knave. I promised myself that this review would not dwell in any way on the age of the actors, but it matters in the context that Green does not bowdlerize Shakespeare's texts. Furthermore, the parents in the audience seem to appreciate that their kids—including the Knaves who are watching—are engaging in Shakespeare in his purest form, from Kent's flow of insults aimed at Oswald to Cornwall plucking out Gloucester's eyes.
What makes the eye-gouging scene so arresting is not because teens are doing it but because it shows how scary Regan is as a character (and how scary good Elinor Greenway is playing her). For the actual eye-gouging, Gloucester (Kai Canoll) has his back to us as Cornwall (Phoenix Dalto) does the deed, sparing us our view of it. However, the second eyeball ends up in the possession of Regan, who drops it on the floor and stomps on it with such ferocious gusto—resulting in substantial blood spray—it generates gasps in the audience (and some covering up of eyes, too). Yet, we could see this demonstrative behavior coming in Greenway's performance of a disturbed Regan dealing with pent-up mommy issues.
The more-than-usual-number of fights could be a peculiar characteristic of a children's Shakespeare theater: What kid doesn't love stage combat, right? This production even starts with Queen Lear and her company encountering a pack of mutants, and in the ensuing fight Cornwall saves the queen's life. This confusing interpolation is intended to explain why, as Kent notes in the play's opening line, Lear suddenly prefers Cornwall over the Duke of Albany as Lear is about to divide the kingdom among her daughters. The players indulge in more nontextual combat thrills in the battle between French and English forces at the end of the play, during which Edmund kills the King of France (this production has him accompanying Cordelia back to England) and the disguised Kent fights Albany (Ward Turner), though when Kent reveals himself, Albany bows and walks away.
Another inserted fight offers more suitable substance to the play: The banished Kent (Lucinda Carroll), upon introducing herself to the audience in disguise as Caius, steps aside as Lear's knights enter and start fighting among themselves. Kent steps in to break up the fights and then successfully defends himself from the knights ganging up on him, whereupon Lear enters. "Let me not stay a jot for dinner," she says: "go get it ready—." The dash is textual, and here it is translated as the Queen pausing as she sees the floor littered with wounded knights and Kent standing in the middle of the mayhem's aftermath. After a "what the heck?" look, Ryan's Lear asks, "How now, what art thou?" Nicely done.
But the wow moment of stage combat is textual, the climactic contest of arms between Edgar (Nina Carbone) and Edmund (Isabel Wecht) in the final scene. The two actresses range back and forth across the play space and nearly spill into the audience (patrons flinch back from the flailing limbs), and with the various blades and clubs involved, I thought for sure one of the girls would end up gashed. Still, this is more than spectator sport; as with Regan's eye-stomping moment, this contest is the culminating expression of the angst and turmoil Carbone's Edgar and Wecht's Edmund have endured over the course of the play.
The Gloucester subplot is the strongest element of this production, in large part because of subtleties in the portrayals. In her notes and in comments before the play, Green says that shame is the catalyst of violent behavior, and that shame is at the core of Edmund's personality. In his opening conversation with Kent, Gloucester "blushes" to acknowledge his bastard son, calls him "whoreson" and his conceiving "a fault," and that though his legitimate, older son is "no dearer in my account," the younger "knave came something saucily to the world before he was sent for." Wecht's Edmund, dressed in red long-sleeve t-shirt and red painter pants, seethes as he listens to all of this, and this coil of shame threatens to spring into public violence throughout Wecht's performance.
Wecht delivers Edmund's "wherefore bastard" soliloquy as a lament, and she does so with piercing direct-address, making eye contact with individuals in the audience as she contemplates Edmund's existence of "baseness, bastardy, base, base." She pauses a moment looking at the fake letter that will launch Edmund's scheme against his father and brother before saying hopefully confident, "I grow, I prosper." Gloucester with a cane appears old and somewhat infirm, but he also displays potential violence toward Edmund, and Wecht shrinks from him in these moments, testifying to past beatings. This is an apt reading of Gloucester, for we see his quick turn to deadly violence toward Edgar on the slimmest of premises, and when the wounded Edmund (a self-wound inflicted in pretending to apprehend Edgar) says, "Look, sir, I bleed," Gloucester ignores the bastard son's needs and instead yells, "Where is the villain?" Edmund obviously has the experience to know how to goad his old man into a hatred.
Carbone shows us a steady if gullible Edgar at first. However, in Edgar's Poor Tom disguise, Carbone displays athletic suppleness, bounding all about the stage and into the audience, and a wide spectrum of vocal calisthenics from eerie to downright crazy. Still, Edgar's true soul is always there, frightened yet cunning. Carbone gets face to face with audience members, challenging us to look away from the Bedlam beggar, and she uses the same approach to Gloucester who shows up to lend support to the queen; Poor Tom gets in his face and unleashes Edgar's rage toward his father. This makes for a truly heartwarming reunion later on the heath when the blinded father enlists the madman-disguised son as guide. Carbone in essence plays four characters in one, for Edgar later takes on a rural dialect when he prentends to be a Kentish countryman, and then deepens his voice to affect authoritative formality as the mysterious challenger to Edmund before their epic showdown.
In Green's Mad Max setting for Queen Lear, the actors wear various forms of face makeup, from black stripes across their eyes (Edmund) to bright, glittering silver eye shadow (Goneril, played by Thalia Calligeros). The costumes designed by Green are a combination of battle fatigues for Albany and black leather for the Cornwalls. Queen Lear is in a white jacket with zippered tassels on her shoulders, shiny silver pants, and a white belted train with a tree-branches motif. The last is the same fabric comprising a scarf that youngest daughter Cordelia (Emma Printz) wears, and she also has on silver pants under an angled gray dress.
While the fashion affinity between mom and favorite daughter is apparent, the contrasting tastes of the other two daughters are equally striking. As eldest daughter Goneril, Calligeros wears a Victorian-style, green dress with a silver belted train. There's elegance in her appearance but much insecurity in her bearing. Meanwhile, Greenway as middle daughter Regan strides about in black bustier, black fingerless gloves, black lace shorts and torn fishnets, black boots, and black cape. This might seem slinky sluttiness, but Greenway's Regan maintains a regal bearing along with her lethal aspects, and her attitude is not much different from that of a 13-year-old in open rebellion against her mother, elevating from impatience with Lear to outright loathing.
Other than Regan's attitude, that whole mother-daughter element doesn't really surface in this production. Printz playing Cordelia is an accomplished actress with strong verse-speaking skills, but the mother-daughter dynamic she offers—counter to those of Goneril and Regan—isn't distinguishable in the opening scene. As for her later scenes at the end of the play, the presence of France (and his pilfering some of her lines) is a distraction to the intended focus of Lear and daughter.
More puzzling is Green cutting the conversation between Goneril and Regan at the end of Act I, Scene 1, when they fret over Lear's increasingly contrary behavior and the prospect that they rather than Cordelia will now have to host him and his hundred knights. With a Queen Lear instead of king, this conversation would serve as the foundational point for launching an exploration of the complex truths of mother-daughter relationships in contrast to the more black-and-white father-daughter relationships portrayed in King Lear. Green has trimmed the play to fit in two-hours' playing time including intermission, but this particular excision douses the potential of that regendered-inspired exploration.
Instead, the production's primary thematic arc centers on Lear dealing with her diminishing command: of her kingdom, of her faculties, and, ultimately, of herself. True, Ryan is a bit young to fully comprehend the aspect of being old (but, then, so are some fine 40-something actors I've seen play the part), but she does portray a queen encountering her own futility at turn after turn (including the funny moment when a single stranger overcomes her knights). After Goneril and Regan insist on stripping Lear of her followers—"What need one?" Regan says so contemptuously it draws a laugh from the audience—Ryan moves into the "O, reason not the need!" speech and everybody else on stage turns their backs on her. This direction turns the speech into an inward meditation through to her distracted attempt to think up a suitable revenge on her daughters. Only when Queen Lear gets to "You think I'll weep: No, I'll not weep" do Kent, Gloucester, and the Fool turn back to her and accompany the queen out into the storm. As Ryan begins raging at the storm, we hear voiceovers of some of her more contentious comments from earlier in the play, starting with her command to learn of her daughters "which of you shall we say doth love us most?" and her rejoinder to Cordelia that "nothing will come of nothing." In the hovel, Poor Tom finds the crown on the floor and places it back on the queen's head, but Ryan's Lear yanks it out of Carbone's hands and throws it off again as if it's her own foul fiend haunting her.
Edgar (Nina Carbone) disguised as Poor Tom takes charge of his blinded father Gloucester (Kai Canoll) in the Children's Shakespeare Theatre production of Queen Lear at the Palisades Presbyterian Church in New York. Photo by Diana Green, Children's Shakespeare Theatre. .
One of this production's lasting impressions on me undoubtedly will be the performance of Amalia Baker as the Fool. Wearing a short brown jacket, blue striped pants, boots, and a knit cap as her coxcomb, Baker's Fool makes her first appearance quietly through the audience and watches with heartfelt concern as the diminished Lear interacts with Goneril's servant Oswald (Matilda Yacopino) before finally presenting herself to Lear and company. We are then treated to a whirling dervish show of jokes well told even as Baker skips and dances about the queen and leaps onto the platform at the back of the stage. This Fool aims to please, even extending a comforting hand to Goneril when Queen Lear curses her daughter's womb, though Goneril, despite her own hurt, shakes off the Fool. This Fool also takes seriously his role (Baker maintains the "boy" label) as Lear's true conscience, and it is in this "bitter fool" we see the empathy in Baker's portrayal. Baker, as with Wecht and Carbone, engages in direct-address to the audience as she delivers her spiels and speeches, and it all makes for a mesmerizing performance.
This Fool's demise comes after Lear and Kent leave for Dover. Baker returns to the stage to fetch Lear's blanket and is ambushed by either Cornwall's minions or a pack of mutants (I'm not sure which). Baker's Fool speaks the Merlin prophecy (cut by many productions) in an attempt to fool his way out of this jam, but he ultimately goes down without a fight. That's instructive in a production featuring a lot of fights. This cast (and the audience, too) is obviously having fun with the theatricality of it all—the costumes, the makeup, the combat, the characters and their personalities—but most of all with Shakespeare's words.
March 31, 2017