Sunday, February 19, 2017

King Lear (A Noise Within’s 2017 Production) Theatre Review

Press photo by Craig Schwartz
What is the greatest artistic achievement in human history? A case can certainly be made for William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy Of King Lear (it is either that or Hamlet). A Noise Within, celebrating its 25th anniversary as a theatre company, is now running a new production of King Lear that boasts a phenomenal cast. Particularly noteworthy is Trisha Miller as Goneril. In fact, hers might be the best Goneril I’ve ever seen. Erika Soto is also excellent as Cordelia. And of course, the entire play really does hinge on its Lear, and Geoff Elliott does a tremendous job, hitting all the right notes and even delivering some wonderful surprises in his line readings.

The play is given a more modern setting, with many of the characters in military uniforms, showing that Lear’s choices affect the entire country and not just his family. The set at the beginning is simple and sparse, dominated by greys. The backdrop is a wall that looks like wet concrete blocks, and it has several doors that aren’t apparent until they’re opened. Tables, chairs and other stage pieces are used throughout the production, and the set changes are done quite quickly, never slowing the action. The only stage pieces that I found unnecessary were the ladders, which momentarily shifted my concern to the actors and away from their characters.

As the play opens, the entire company comes on stage for an interesting, slow motion stage picture before the production moves into the first scene with Gloucester, Kent and Edmund. Gloucester and Kent are in military dress, while Edmund wears a suit and glasses. Edmund (Freddy Douglas) is quite composed and business-like, with a slightly frightening tone to his voice at times, like in his speech about nature later on. Lear is in full military dress, and uses a walking stick. His three daughters are seated downstage, facing Lear who is, of course, center stage. The daughters’ dresses for this opening scene are solid colors – Goneril in purple, Regan in blue, and Cordelia, interestingly, in a color that is something between purple and blue. It’s interesting, because that color doesn’t immediately separate her from her sisters, but rather indicates that she might in fact have a combination of their traits. She is, however, farther downstage than the other two, the three creating a triangle.

As I mentioned, Trisha Miller is particularly good as Goneril. Her Goneril is human, at times even compassionate, and her actions are understandable. She is not played as a simple villain, as is sometimes done. And when she is asked by Lear to first say how much she loves him, she is actually surprised, which is a great moment. Regan (Arie Thompson) then has had a moment to prepare, and is able to be a bit more cunning. Cordelia’s asides, by the way, are cut from this scene. Asides are basically cut from this production, although of course some of Edmund’s long speeches are directed at the audience. The one aside that I feel shouldn’t be cut is Goneril’s “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine,” but of course by that point it would be strange for a character to suddenly offer an aside when none other has been presented thus far. When it is Cordelia’s turn to express her love for her father, she and Lear actually switch places on the stage, which is really interesting, because it shows perhaps an eagerness on his part to place himself under her rule, and of course toward the end she is almost like the parent. Geoff Elliott is excellent in this rather difficult scene. I love that he laughs at her “Nothing,” leading the others in applause at her “joke.” And when it becomes clear to him that she is not joking, they again exchange places, which is telling also, for it shows that now Lear wishes to retain the power of the king, that in some way he is not ready to relinquish it, though by now he has already promised the other two daughters his kingdom. Also wonderful is that Goneril, Regan and their husbands seem shocked when Lear gives them Cordelia’s part of the kingdom. This is not something they had expected or hoped for.

By the way, this production follows the folio in presenting Kent’s line to Lear as “Reserve thy state” rather than the quarto’s “Reverse thy doom.” Lear grabs Kent by the throat in his rage, which leads nicely to Kent’s “Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat.” By then, Lear has let go. Lear’s love for Cordelia is clear from the beginning, and when he says “nor shall ever see/That face of hers again,” his voice breaks a bit, which is wonderful. Interestingly, when most everyone has exited, Cordelia suddenly gives voice to her grief, and Goneril and Regan actually go to comfort her. Again, it’s excellent to show the sisters as compassionate at the beginning. Even though they know that Lear prefers Cordelia, they don’t necessarily hold it against her.

As Lear and Cordelia change positions in that scene, Gloucester and Edmund do so in the following scene. The differences in their relationship, compared to that of Lear and Cordelia, are highlighted almost by the similarity of action. Because in this case, Edmund has taken Gloucester’s seat without permission, so that when Gloucester (Apollo Dukakis) enters, Edmund quickly gets up, relinquishing the seat to his father. This also hints at what is to come in their relationship. This production really does an excellent job at establishing relationships through the positioning of characters in relation to one another. Edmund takes the chair again when Gloucester exits. Edgar (Rafael Goldstein), by contrast, is more casually dressed than Edmund, showing that he is more secure in his state and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

When we see Goneril again, she is dressed in dark blue, which is closer to the color of the military outfits, a nice touch showing the change in her position. And when we see Kent (Stephen Weingartner) again, his disguise is believable. Often in Shakespeare plays when someone is in disguise, folks in the audience wonder, how could the others not recognize him or her? But Kent appears with shaved head and an eye patch, and uses a different accent, all of which make it quite believable that Lear and the others would not recognize him. Of course, at some point the Fool (Kasey Mahaffy) recognizes him, but Fools always possess that kind of wisdom. The Fool, by the way, is dressed in a somewhat busy suit and a bowler, the bowler acting as his coxcomb. The scene with Goneril and Lear is especially good, as both are sympathetic. I love that Goneril is visibly hurt when Lear curses her to be barren. At one point she even leans on the table for support during Lear’s “thankless child” speech. And when Lear collapses into a chair, Goneril steps toward him as if to comfort him, which is such a nice touch, showing that even in her upset state she still instinctively cares for Lear. And we see very clearly the turn she takes toward anger, and it’s entirely understandable. As I mentioned before, Trisha Miller’s performance as Goneril is outstanding.

In the scene with Edmund and Edgar, Edmund wounds his own arm before calling Edgar in, rather than after Edgar has left, which is odd. Wouldn’t Edgar notice that cut? Regan then aids Edmund, and shows her absolute and sudden delight when her husband extends his welcome to him, another wonderful moment. It is from a trash can that Edgar gets his Poor Tom disguise, which works well. Kent is chained to a metal gate rather than put in the stocks, so the word “stocks” is replaced by “shackles” each time. And when Regan mentions Lear dismissing half his train, it seems that has already happened, because by now we are seeing Lear with just his Fool and Kent. When Goneril arrives, she is clad in a fur coat, which is great, for it gives us an idea of the temperature (in addition to being an indication of her character), and a little later when Edgar – nearly naked as Poor Tom – claims to be cold, we certainly believe him. And we feel for Lear caught in the storm.

When we see Lear in the storm, his walking stick has been replaced with a rougher branch, which he raises above his head, perhaps to fight the heavens or perhaps asking to be struck by the storm, or perhaps both. It’s another excellent moment. (Gloucester will also use a branch to help him after he’s been blinded, a nice way of connecting those two characters.) Lear joins the Fool in his song. When Lear wants to try his daughters, he imagines them in positions close to where they were in their first scene, which is a nice touch. Though this time, they are together, because now in Lear’s mind, Regan and Goneril are the same. It’s a great way of recalling the first scene. And this production does it one more time near the end, creating a powerful image.

There are two major points of contention for me regarding this production – the way the Fool is dispatched and the way Gloucester’s leap is handled. All productions have to decide why the Fool isn’t in the later part of the play. Some people believe it’s because Lear has become a fool himself (as the Fool states several times), and so the Fool is no longer needed. Or Lear can no longer receive the wisdom the Fool has to offer, so far gone is he at this point. In practical terms, it is believed that the Fool and Cordelia might have been played by the same actor. But obviously some choice has to be made. I’ve seen at least one production where he is hanged, as Lear seems to indicate at the end (though it could be argued he is speaking of Cordelia at that point). This production provides its own explanation for why the Fool isn’t in the rest of the play, but does so by adding something that is certainly not a part of Shakespeare’s text. I won’t give away what that is here, but it is rather serious and could change the way you view at least one character.

As for Gloucester’s leap, it is done in a strange and confusing way. At the moment he is to jump, there is a sudden and brief blackout, and then we see him lying on the stage. To someone unfamiliar with the play, it might seem to indicate that he actually did jump off a cliff. Also, there are sound effects of the ocean and seagulls, which would lead one to think that Edgar did bring Gloucester to the ocean. But in the text, it is fairly clear that Edgar has not brought him anywhere near the sea. In fact, he asks Gloucester, “Hark! do you hear the sea?” And Gloucester answers, “No truly.” And then most of the dialogue between Edgar and Gloucester after the supposed leap is cut in this production, dialogue which would make clear the fact that Gloucester did not jump off a cliff.

There are a couple of minor bits of business that strike a false note, as when Lear has his hand down his shorts and then tells Gloucester “Let me wipe it first” after Gloucester asks to kiss his hand. But for the most part, this production does a fantastic job in both the larger moments and the smaller ones. I love Lear’s deliver of “Then there’s life in’t,” before he leads the soldiers in a chase. And Erika Soto is absolutely fantastic as Cordelia in the scene where she is reunited with Lear. She even takes a moment to regain strength in her voice before telling the others, “Still, still far wide.” It’s an incredible scene that had me in tears. And, as you might expect, the play’s final scene is also emotionally engaging. The cast does an excellent job throughout.

There is one intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene vi. By the way, during the curtain call, Cordelia and the Fool come out together, perhaps a nod to the belief that they were both originally played by the same actor.

King Lear runs through May 6th, in repertory with Ah, Wilderness! and Man Of La Mancha. The dates for King Lear are as follows: February 25, February 26, March 17, March 18, April 8, April 13, April 14, April 22, April 23, May 4, May 5, May 6. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. Free parking is located at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Shakespeare References in The Essential Lenny Bruce

The Essential Lenny Bruce is a collection of material from Lenny Bruce’s performances, transcribed and organized by subject. It was edited by John Cohen. It contains a few Shakespeare references, all of them Hamlet references actually. The first comes in a bit with a rabbi, with the rabbi saying, “Alas, alas, poor Yossel” (p. 36), a reference to Hamlet’s line, “Alas, poor Yorick.” The second is a reference to that famous speech by Polonius to Laertes. Lenny Bruce says, “It’s like, any comedian, see, all comedians – it’s ‘To thine own self be true’” (p. 111). Lenny Bruce uses that line again, this time in a song: “The most important factor?/To thine own self be true” (p. 172). By the way, in the back of the book there is an index of bits, and the bit on page 111 is referred to as “To Thine Own Self Be True” (p. 312).

The Essential Lenny Bruce was published in 1967 by Ballantine Books. My copy was from the sixth printing, in April of 1971.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Shakespeare References in The Speed Of Sound

Thomas Dolby’s memoir, The Speed Of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology, contains a couple of Shakespeare references. The first is a reference to Richard The Third: “I wanted to be back in my bed-sitter in drab South London, in 1978, in the Winter of Discontent” (p. 5). Of course, the Winter of Discontent is a specific time in the UK, the winter of 1978-1979, when there were a lot of strikes. But it also refers to the first line of Shakespeare’s play. “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Thomas Dolby then uses “The Winter Of Discontent” as the title of the book’s first chapter. The other reference is to William Shakespeare himself: “So much of the filmmaker’s art was based on classical story structure dating back to the Greeks, Shakespeare, and Japanese narrative aesthetics” (p. 160).

The Speed Of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology was published in October of 2016 through Flatiron Books.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Shakespeare Reference in Harvest Tales & Midnight Revels

Harvest Tales & Midnight Revels: Stories For The Waning Of The Year is a collection of Halloween stories written by various authors for an annual Halloween story-reading party. The collection was edited by Michael Mayhew and illustrated by Mona Caron. It contains one Shakespeare reference, though not in any of the stories. It comes in the afterword, written by Michael Mayhew and Joshua Mertz: “On the other hand, the Play’s the thing – or in our case, the Stories are” (p. 209). This is a reference to Hamlet’s line, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Harvest Tales & Midnight Revels: Stories For The Waning Of The Year was published in 1998 by Bald Mountain Books.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Shakespeare Reference in Sundancing

John Anderson’s Sundancing: Hanging Out And Listening In At America’s Most Important Film Festival contains one Shakespeare reference. This book about the Sundance Film Festival features the thoughts of many of the folks who attended the festival in 1999. Ann Russell says, “I produce, direct, and stage manage, and we’re doing a very cute play which is Shakespeare set to music – which could potentially be awful but the music is so good” (p. 193).

Sundancing: Hanging Out And Listening In At America’s Most Important Film Festival was published in 2000 by Spike Books.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Shakespeare References in In The Boom Boom Room

Shakespeare references continue to pop up in most of the things I read. While Shakespeare and his works aren’t actually referred to in David Rabe’s play In The Boom Boom Room, Shakespeare is mentioned twice at the beginning of the book. The first reference: “In The Boom Boom Room was first produced Off-Broadway by Joseph Papp on December 4, 1974 at The New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater under the direction of Robert Hedley” (p. 5). The second reference is in the description of the set: “The set should be a space with areas and levels similar to a Shakespearean stage, but all within a metaphor of bars and go-go dancing” (p. 8).

The edition I read was the Samuel French publication, the play revised to the original two acts, and includes a note by David Rabe at the end.

Monday, September 26, 2016

William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of The Sith’s Revenge: Star Wars Part The Third by Ian Doescher (2015) Book Review

Revenge Of The Sith was far and away the best of the three Star Wars prequels. Ian Doescher combines that screenplay with the work of William Shakespeare to create William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of The Sith’s Revenge: Star Wars Part The Third, completing the six-book series. As with the other volumes, this book is divided into five acts and is presented mostly in iambic pentameter.

The prologue is delivered by the Chorus as a sonnet. As in other books in the series, lines are given to characters that don’t speak in the films. For example, in this book, the vulture droids speak. And of course, there are many references to the works of Shakespeare. Anakin Skywalker turns to Julius Caesar when speaking with Dooku: “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The Jedi never taste of death but once” (pages 23-24). Of course, in Act II scene ii Caesar says, “The valiant,” not “The Jedi.” Later Anakin has a little play on the title of All’s Well That Ends Well when he says, “Methinks all’s well – that might have ended worse” (p. 27). He also quotes Romeo: “I have more care to stay than will to go” (p. 39).

Anakin turns to Titus Andronicus as well: “If I did tell my sorrows to the stones,/Who, though they cannot answer my distress,/Yet in some sort are better than the Council,/For that they will not intercept my tale:/When I do weep, they humbly at my feet/Receive my tears and seem to weep with me;/And, were they but attired in grave weeds,/Coruscant could afford none like to these./A stone is soft as wax, the Jedi harder,/A stone is silent and offendeth not,/Whilst Jedi by decrees doom me to shame” (p. 57). Of course these lines are slightly different than the original speech by Titus in Act III Scene i: “Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones,/Who, though they cannot answer my distress,/Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,/For that they will not intercept my tale./When I do weep, they humbly at my feet/Receive my tears, and seem to weep with me;/And, were they but attired in grave weeds,/Rome could afford no tribune like to these./A stone is as soft wax, tribunes more hard than stones;/A stone is silent, and offendeth not,/And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death.”

Palpatine, interestingly, takes the role of Hamlet when he instructs the players to perform a certain piece for Anakin. He says to Player 1, “I heard thee speak me a speech once, but ‘twas/Ne’er acted; or, if ‘twas, not above once” (p. 64). Player 1 plays the role of Oedipus as a Tusken Raider. Then Anakin use Hamlet’s words about being played “as one would play a pipe” (p. 67). The story of Darth Plagueis is performed by the players, an interesting choice. Anakin turns to Hamlet again when talking to Padme: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – /Lost all my mirth” (p. 78). And once Anakin becomes Darth Vader, he quotes from Act IV Scene iii of Timon Of Athens: “the moon’s an arrant thief,/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun” (p. 104). Vader also turns to Othello when he goes to the Jedi temple to dispatch the young Jedi: “I would not kill your unprepared spirits;/No, heav’n forfend! I would not kill your souls” (p. 116). The first youngling responds with Desdemona’s line, “Talk you of killing?” Vader also quotes King Lear: “I am a man more sinn’d against than sinning” (p. 143), before returning once again to Hamlet: “Aye, there’s the rub” (p. 143). Vader also refers to Macduff’s line toward the end of Macbeth when he says, “But from that home, that mother, was I ta’en,/Untimely ripp’d from her beloved arms.”

Ian Doescher adds a scene in which two Jedi discuss the mysterious Order 66, which was missing from the written codes. This is a nice bit of foreshadowing, which of course is interesting, because it’s unlikely that anyone who reads this isn’t already familiar with the Star Wars films. And for that reason, the foreshadowing becomes rather humorous.

In addition to Shakespeare, this book makes some other playful references. For example, Mace says, “Prithee, listen not to how the black/Snake moaneth unto thee” (p. 100). Black Snake Moan stars Samuel L. Jackson, the actor who plays Mace in the Star Wars films. Mace then says, “A time to kill hath, in its time, arriv’d.” (A Time To Kill is another film starring Samuel L. Jackson.)

William Shakespeare’s Tragedy Of The Sith’s Revenge: Star Wars Part The Third was published in 2015 by Quirk Books.