nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
July 27, 2009
Having enjoyed much fantastic work at Gallery Players over the years, I was really excited about seeing King Lear and about their new, summer Shakespeare festival, the Players Shakespeare, for which this is the first production. I have come to expect quality from this company, and this production does, indeed, offer a lot of quality, especially acting-wise. It also has some shortcomings, specifically a too-long first act which I found hard to follow. [Note: A summary of the plot of King Lear is here.]
Under the direction of Sidney Fortner and Dominic Cuskern (who also plays Lear), the play is performed on a stage with only a black backdrop, a red cloth, and an assortment of area rugs. It's not clear where or when the play is set, but the costumes are period, indicating Elizabethan times. There are minimal set pieces and props. According to the press release, the intention is to tell the story, "keeping all 'lendings' to a minimum," just using the language and the action. There is no clear frame or thematic focus except what the audience comes up with.
The play is divided into two acts with an intermission in between. In the first act, there are some captivating moments, for example when Edmund (Montgomery Sutton) addresses the audience directly, he really brings us into the action, and when Kent (John Blaylock) is put into the stocks, it's humorous.
Unfortunately, however, the first act—which is about two hours long—is largely made up of conversation, and I found it difficult to connect with. As I watched, I started asking myself questions: How could they have shown this instead of having everyone talking? What needs to be established in this scene? What could have been cut? Not a good sign.
In the second act, which is considerably shorter, the action picks up, and I found it a lot more captivating. As Lear declines even further into his delusions and as the rest of the characters win, lose, and betray one another, the same production that bored me in Act I became moving and exciting.
Elliott Mayer, as Gloucester, and Brandon Mears, as Edgar, really play with the layers of their relationship: Edgar as savior, trickster, and guide, and Gloucester as a sad father, who, like Lear has lost everything because he was tricked into betraying his child. During their scene on a "cliff," I started to formulate ideas about the themes of the play, like being kind to a parent despite his mistakes and how you sometimes need to lie to him in order to do so.
Also in this production's second act, Cuskern's Lear really comes to life. As I watched his acting, I admired his expert transitions from moment to moment, conveying so many specific emotions in this complex text. When Lear says to Cordelia (the lovely and perfectly cast Jessica Rothenberg) that those who have no reason to hate him have abandoned him and those who have every reason to hate him are here for him, I started to think about who had and had not stuck by him. When Lear famously howls while carrying Cordelia's limp body, Cuskern lets it go, and the catharsis is wonderful and tragic.
Other performances which stood out to me include Andrew Firda as the Fool and the Doctor, John Blaylock as the ever-loyal Kent, and Molly Pope as Regan, Lear's evil second daughter. Fight director Robert Najarian has choreographed a thrilling climax, expertly executed by Brandon Mears and Montgomery Sutton.
At the end of King Lear, I left the theatre glad to have seen the play, but I felt it really was out of balance. I wish the first act had been shorter and more interesting and engaging so that I could have been captivated sooner. Overall, I still look forward to all of the Gallery Players' future productions.