Reviewed by Will Stackman
There is still a minority opinion, a small one, that William Shakespeare's "King Lear" is essentially unproducable, being too large a conception for the stage. But then it might seem unlikely that a group of actors, starting essentially from scratch, could assemble a respectable Shakespearean troupe, produce three interesting productions in different spaces in their first year, and open their second season with the Bard's final tragedy. Drawing on their combined experience, the Actors' Shakespeare Project has done just that, and at worst wrestled the beast to a draw, preserving the grandeur of the verse while achieving the tragedy's arc. ASP has chosen to use the harder edged 1623 Folio edition of the text, as being closer to what the King's Men might have acted.Their current production of "Lear" has come to rest in the Studio Theatre of the B.U. Fine Arts Building, a space created from the ornate lobby of this former commercial building. With seating on two sides of this tall room, which has a large fireplace at one end, a broad staircase at right angles at the other and two huge pillars defining a central acting area, the audience is transported into a palace, with faded murals on the walls, peeling gold trim, and a floor covered with tanbark and rubber chips to deaden footsteps. A large oriental rug will soon be rolled back to reveal the essential plot device. One of Artistic Director Benjamin Evett's better ideas was to keep his company peripatetic, finding new and interesting spaces around town in which to stage their efforts, in the tradition of the traveling players at the root of Elizabethan Theatre.
But this production could easily work elsewhere, given its cast. Central of course is Alvin Epstein, who resigned from the A.R.T when Robert Brustein stepped down. This eighty-year old American Master, whose Broadway career began in 1956, who's been artistic director of the Guthrie, and who helped found the Yale Rep, makes a unique and powerful King Lear. He first appeared in this play as the Fool opposite Orson Welles and was seen last season in NYC as Nagg in "Endgame". The rest of the ensemble, including some of his former ART students, makes a heroic effort to keep up, bringing their diverse talents to the project. Allyn Burrows, fresh from the summer as King John for Shakespeare & Co. plays Kent, Lear's loyal supporter, adopting a unique and purposefully comic accent when in disguise. As Cordelia, Sara Newhouse, an ART grad with a decade of first rate work in Boston and beyond, is definitely her father's daughter, something the old man realizes too late. Colin Lane, seen last year at the ART in "Dido" as Aeneas is a forceful Gloucester, the King's other staunch supporter. His two sons are played by Evett, relishing the role of Edmund, the clever bastard, and Doug Lockwood as Edgar, fated to fall and rise again to complete the play.
Lear's two other daughter's are Jennie Israel as overbearing Goneril and Paula Langton as conniving Regan. Israel was seen on the Common as Lady Macbeth for CSC, and appeared last season for ASP as Elizabeth in "Rich. III" and Calpurnia in "Julius Caesar". Langton played Isabella in "Measure for Measure" opposite Burrow's Duke and is currently Head of Acting at B.U.'s School of Theatre. As their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, Bill Gardiner, a Publick Theatre veteran who's completing an advanced degree at B.U. and Michael Walker seen last season as Pompey, are well matched to their spouses. Gardiner's Albany displays the gravitas required of the role when necessary, as a man who could be king. And then there's tall Ken Cheesman as the Fool, reprising a role he played several seasons ago opposite Austin Pendleton at the New Rep. Working as a foil to Epstein, he's developed a more capering role with a very incisive style, making this challenging role very much his own. Director Patrick Swanson has also come up with a unique answer to why the Fool disappears before the final act. Indeed, Swanson, who among his other singular achievements has directed the annual Christmas Revels now in its 35th year, has invested this stripped down modern dress production with various theatrical touches which lift it beyond the barebones approach frequently seen these days. He's also managed to cast the play with general effectiveness with in the limitations of using as many company members as possible.
The rest of the cast includes Bill Barclay, who plays the cameo role of Burgundy, the more substantial role of Oswald, Goneril's henchman, and also created a live music score for the show which features steel cellos and brass, including an alpinhorn. Mathew Dickson and Gabriel Levey, two senior acting majors appear as Curan, Cornwall's aide who the latter kills, and France, who marries Cordelia. Both perform various minor ensemble roles, as do about half the other men, including Gardiner, who steps in as the old man leading blind Gloucester away. There's an almost cinematic swirl to the action as the play produces along a measured and inevitable pace, with very few missteps as the scene shifts about the space. As a drama "Lear" is perhaps the best example in English of the ancient adage, "Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad with power". Which of course brings the play right up to date. As ASP's Scholar in residence, David Evett notes, "Truly humane government seems difficult almost to the point of impossibility, and the dire consequences of the failure to achieve it only too immediate". In Kent, Edgar, and even the Fool, the Bard displays the hard alternative and the end of this production has all the uncertainty Shakespeare intended.
The rest of ASP's season includes "Twelfth Night" this winter, directed by Robert Walsh, who helmed "Measure for Measure" last season and appeared as Brutus. "Twelfth Night" will be done at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, whose performance space is an ornate tall hall in the historic Bullfinch Courthouse in East Cambridge. Then Evett directs "All's Well That Ends Well" at the renovated Durrell Hall in the Cambridge YMCA, where ASP staged "Julius Caesar" last spring. With Boston Theatre Works staging "Othello" featuring Jonathan Epstein as Iago this winter, lovers of the Bard will have much to look forward to, in a season which started with the New Rep's inaugural production of "Romeo & Juliet" in their new theatre.