I saw the first public performance of the Public’s King Lear in Central Park last Tuesday, and the best I can say for it is that, like its lead actor, it has all the notes, but not the tune. Only time will tell if that changes for the better, and the various parts become a whole here. As of that first performance, what I saw reminded me of the old joke about how you could always rely on Shakespeare In The Park to give you 25 actors in 26 plays—the extra one being whatever the director intended to do, and didn’t.
This isn’t THAT bad. Like I say, it’s just a reminder. And I’m bending over backwards to factor in the first-audience-ever thing, even while I’m also reminded that I saw Much Ado on its fourth public performance, and it played like it had been running for months.
So here are some thoughts on what worked, what didn’t work, and what needs to get better.
THE LENGTH. It was advertised on the waiting line as two hours fifty, and by the ushers before the show as three hours fifteen. It ended up being three hours twenty, with one intermission. This is just painful. I can only assume that two hours fifty is the goal, and that running the show will speed things up.
One actor who really needs to straddle a Vespa and get to where he’s going is Chukwudi Iwuji , who plays Edgar and Mad Tom. His Edgar was serviceable, but his Mad Tom was a scene hog. Seriously: I felt like I had never heard so many of Mad Tom's lines before, because in all the other productions, the actor races through them, y'know, like a crazy person; as opposed to this production, where Iwuji took center and, knowing that nobody else could speak until he finished, took his sweet bloody time getting all the foul fiends and the Sah-sah-sah's out. Listening to everyone else, and then listening to him, was like tooling along at the speed limit only to get stuck behind some alter-kocker in the slow lane.
THE ACTING. Jay O Sanders as Kent was the anchor of the show. His scenes with Lithgow were the best part of the play. And Lithgow was in possession of the part, but not in command of it. He will only get better at it as he does it. The one thing he did that I hope doesn’t change is something that I really appreciated—he modulated his anger and rage throughout the play so that there was an actual rise to the storm scene. So often a Lear will hit ten in the opening scene, which means that when he has to top it with his rage at Goneril, and then top that with the storm scene, he has nowhere to go and we don’t care. Lithgow went somewhere and I cared.
As for the three sisters (heh), Jessica Collins’ Cordelia was as breathless as someone who had just run the Corporate Challenge, Jessica Hecht’s Regan was getting laughs by deliberately displaying the chasms between her casualness and callowness, and Annette Bening’s Goneril ran the gamut of A to B, from anger to outrage.
Bening was obviously still working on the lines, and did a professional’s job of making her pauses work for the character. This will get better in time. But she needs to loosen up (she totally blew Goneril’s best line: “Oh, the difference of man and man!”) and she really really needs to stop roaming around the stage like someone looking for her camera marks. This happened throughout the show, and because of it she was in serious danger of getting herself skewered during the final duel. I swear that when Edmund moved over to her before the fight started and put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, he was ad-libbing it so he could direct her to the stairs down to the pit, where she’d be safe.
(That duel was fabulous, by the way. The two fighters go through a succession of swords, pikes, shields, maces, you name it, before it ends.)
General cast note: everyone was way too weepy. Rule Number One About Tears: if an actor cries, an audience doesn’t. Somebody needs to post that backstage.
What else? This version of the script sticks mostly to the Quarto over the Folio (no to the Merlin speech, yes to the mock trial, no to Kent talking about Cordelia to the Gentleman, and Albany gives the final lines). The Fool’s disappearance at the end of III, 6 is given a visual explanation. And the intermission, for some reason, takes place before the storm scene, if I remember correctly, which makes the second half of the evening just as long as the first half. This is my fourth Lear so far this year, and probably my (twelfth? fifteenth? twentieth?) Lear overall, and if that memory is correct, then it’s the only time I’ve ever seen an intermission occur so early in the flow of the play.
There's a part of me that's more than a little interested in checking the show out later in its run, just to see if it’s speeded up a little, never mind changed for the better. There's another part of me that wants to see it again, just so I can write a valid review about a show that is giving a performance as opposed to the quasi-run-through that I saw. But there's a way bigger part of me which says that life is short, and Lears are long. So if you have seen this in the last week, or see it later in its run, let me know what you think, and how different it is (or isn’t) from what I’ve just described.
Me, I’ll just be finalizing my notes for an even longer post about all the Lears I’ve seen so far in 2014, taken both as a unit and as individual productions. And ponder whether I want to take the plunge and see the Globe production which will be playing Skirball Center in September. (Who am I kidding? I am so there.) (And I am laying a ton of money that this one will come in at two hours fifteen with intermission.)