Daily Archives: November 22, 2019

Viking Queen “Lear” Remains True to the Bard

Review: Lear by Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

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We’ve had more than a couple of productions of King Lear in the Metrolina area during the new millennium – plus a couple of offshoots like Lear ReLoaded and Lear Unplugged in Boiling Springs and Davidson. So it would be natural for you to suspect that Lear, from the young Free Reign Theatre Company, is some sort of mashup, modernization, or abridgement of William Shakespeare’s towering tragedy.

Not so. The title has been shortened for a different reason: old Lear is now a woman. The production at Spirit Square clocks in at about three hours and 15 minutes, including intermission, fairly consonant with the lengths of King Lear presentations by the Charlotte Shakespeare Festival in 2011 at McGlohon Theatre and the NC Shakespeare Lear of 2008 up in High Point, both starring Graham Smith. Free Reign’s edit actually provides more Lear than the 2006 Classic Theatre of Charlotte production in NoDa, when director Tony Wright performed deft surgery on the script.

You don’t have to twist or contort your expectations to enjoy this Lear. Directed by Heather Bucsh, the Free Reign take on Shakespearean production is conspicuously low-budget, with respect to scenery, compared to the others I’ve mentioned. Yet Bucsh has also designed the Viking costumes – as pointedly as she directs – so we accustom ourselves to watching palace scenes, royal inhospitality, and eye gougings played out with little more than picnic tables.

The play and the players are the thing, beginning with Lisa Essex as Lear. Hitting the right note with this monarch in the Bard’s opening scene is a supreme test, both for a director and an actor tackling the title role for the first time. Questions already lurk in the playscript for them to grapple with. What kind of relationships has Lear established with his daughters? Why is he dividing his kingdom? And perhaps most puzzling of all, after calling upon his daughters to compete for their inherited portions on the basis of how much they love daddy, why does he decide the results of the competition while the daughters are still competing?

Maybe it’s useful, then, that Essex struggles to project the age, the command, and the explosive presence of the eccentric king. It doesn’t help that she is neither big nor tall – nor guarded by the 100, 50, or even 25 riotous knights that Shakespeare tells us are serving His Highness. We can gloss over questions of plausibility quite easily as we try getting used to the concept that this woman is truly master of all the lands she is divvying up.

As Lear diminishes in her worldly power, becomes more isolated and disrespected, finally losing her sanity, Essex steadily grows in dramatic power. By the time Lear is raving mad on the stormy heath, challenging winds and hurricanoes to do their worst, Essex is near her peak. But it’s when the storm is over that we see this Lear’s madness most vividly. Essex and Bucsh don’t pick up on every nuanced life lesson that the humbled queen is learning about “elemental man” from her Fool and Edgar (disguised as a crazed beggar), but I’ve never seen a Lear that’s more out of his mind than Essex looks out of hers.

There is a breathtaking depth to her downfall and disintegration, so when we move from the sin-and-punishment portion of her story to her grace-and-forgiveness reunion with Cordelia, the good daughter he has wronged, it’s as profoundly moving as any Lear I’ve seen.

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Even in the grand opening, Bucsh and her cast impress me when we look away from the throne. For one thing, we don’t have to look far. Goneril and Regan, along with their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, are scrunched together at that picnic table. So we quickly get a sense of their evil conspiratorial kinship – with a hint of the mutual enmity and jealousy that will kill them both. It’s there when they speak and when they listen. Kristin Varnell looks mean and barbaric as Goneril, even as she sits closest to her dad at the table, and Rebecca Gossage is the essence of wantonness as Regan, more slyly concealed near the far end of the group.

There’s a more substantial contrast between Albany and Cornwall, where the good-natured cluelessness of Nathan Hall as Albany is markedly different from Mathew Schantz’s scowling distemper as Cornwall. But what impresses me most about Busch’s work is what she does in the parallel plot, where the Earl of Gloucester is as deceived in his valuation of his sons, Edgar and Edmund, as Lear is with her daughters. Here Free Reign’s gender switch actually improves Shakespeare’s fearful symmetry.

Robert Brafford beautifully handles the slimy cunning of the bastard Edmund, a villain who addresses us directly more than any other Shakespeare schemer this side of Iago. He gets a warrior look to his beard’s coiffure that sets him apart from all but Schantz as Cornwall, relishing the competing attentions of Goneril and Regan as much as cozening his father and brother. Russell Rowe mutes the foolishness of Gloucester, not making a banquet out of the Earl’s reliance on astrological portents. That only slightly abbreviates his learning curve when he’s blinded – while his pitifulness remains intact.

What will stand out most for me when I recall this Lear is the beautifully reimagined performance of Katie Bearden as Edgar – the best Edgar that I have seen. Anywhere. Her role unfolds in three stages: hoodwinked Edgar, the fugitive Tom of Bedlam beggar, and champion warrior Edgar. The first stage is unremarkable enough, with Bearden choosing to be naïve and credulous instead of bookish and trusting, the way we see him most often. Magic begins when Bearden transforms into the Bedlam beggar, a howling combination of ‘60s icons Janis Joplin and Tiny Tim that somehow combines savagery with vulnerability.

I won’t begin to describe the look of Bearden as the disguised Edgar who emerges from hiding to challenge brother Edmund to mortal combat, but I’ll say this: revenge in a Shakespearean production has never tasted sweeter to me. As a result, my focus shifted slightly as the multiple denouements played out in Lear. I found myself as invested in Edgar’s revenge upon his brother as I usually am in the vicious Edmund-Goneril-Regan love triangle – notwithstanding Charles Holmes’s mediocre fight choreography when the brother gladiators clashed.

Sadly, Essex’s real-life daughter, Madeleine Essex, didn’t rise to even that level on opening night. Bucsh had her looking sweet and pure compared to her sibs, and the younger Essex took her portrayal in a fine direction, toward modesty and shyness, with perhaps a pinch of trepidation.

If only Lear’s dying description of Cordelia’s voice as “soft, gentle, and low” hadn’t pushed her to the verge of whispering in the opening scene. And perhaps a livelier, more spontaneous “No cause, no cause” would have made my tears flow more freely in the luminous reunion. Yet there were moments – startling moments – when Essex showed us just how loud and emotional Cordelia can be.

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No such inconsistencies dogged of Courtney Harris’s bluster as Kent, the loyal knight that Lear banishes with Cordelia, though she could register more chastening and enlightenment at the end of her journey. And I’ve been seeing excellent portrayals by women of Lear’s saucy, prickly Fool for so long that Amy Schiede Cheek’s winsome élan in the role comes as no shock, even with her ram’s horns and lyre. The suspense nowadays is whether productions will deal with the Bard’s failure to tell us the Fool’s ultimate fate. Bucsh and Cheek do tackle that matter decisively.

The best portent of the evening happened when I first walked into Duke Energy Theater and found the place nearly sold-out on opening night. Evidently, word-of-mouth about Free Reign has spread, unfazed by Lear in any form. The quality of this work ought to keep them coming, even if the actors come out for their bows at 11:15pm.

Just one point of order: since you’ve changed the gender of all her personal pronouns, could you please stop calling this queen “Sir”? I don’t think either Queen Elizabeth was addressed that way.

Soul and Spirit of the Caribbean in a Ramshackle Village

Review: Once on This Island

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

The Company of the North American Tour of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND. Photo by Joan Marcus. 2019

Early in the colorful Tony Award-winning revival of Once on This Island, we learn what differentiates the upper-class grand hommes of this French Antilles fantasyland from the darker-skinned impoverished peasants they have shunned. The upper crust have their money, their steady flow of rich tourists, their fine champagne, their Frenchified style, and their mastery of their own fates. The peasants in this jewel of the Caribbean? They have their religion. They pray to their gods of earth, water, and love who rule their lives – along with the demon of death.

They remain remarkably upbeat despite finding themselves at the mercy of merciless deities: “And if the gods decide to send a hurricane… we dance!” Or so they sing.

In her adaptation of Rosa Guy’s My Love, My Love, Lynn Ahrens and her peasant islanders retain their sunniness even though they live and narrate a tragic tale. Shimmering with steel drums and assorted Caribbean percussion, Stephen Flaherty’s score is on the same radiant page. After the opening “We Dance” cited above, even the most dramatic songs, like “Pray” and “Forever Yours,” almost always have an uptempo episode. As “Some Say” hints, you’re blessed if you merely end up “in a story or a song.”

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For the plucky islanders, the glass is always at least half full. Ti Moun arrives near the home of Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie as wee girl, perched up in a tree after the storm and tide that washed away her native village deposits her there. Tonton and Mama adopt her as soon as they confirm that she can speak. Instead of fretting over or mourning her ancestors, Ti Moun grows up thinking that her miraculous survival signals that the gods have a special purpose for her.

It comes when Daniel Beauxhomme comes riding along during another bad storm and crashes his car on the beach. While the smitten Ti Moun is desperately nursing Daniel back to health, Papa Ge – the demon of death – comes to claim him and break her heart. Ti Moun shocks the demon by offering up her life in exchange for his. Love beyond love.

The story that plays out afterwards; with echoes of Little Mermaid, Romeo and Juliet, and a couple of choice pagan myths retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; breaks Ti Moun’s heart anyway. At this most vulnerable moment, she has a second grim encounter with Papa Ge – and once again, she thwarts the demon. After that, we see that, in a hopelessly endlessly downtrodden way, Ti Moun truly is a favorite of the gods. Especially if being in a song and a story is sufficient proof.

You can’t replicate the campfire configuration of Circle in the Square, the Broadway theater where This Island was revived, so the intimate community feel of the show hasn’t made it intact to Belk Theater. But there’s a storytelling vibe in Ahrens’ book and ten Storytellers in director Michael Arden’s touring production. Scenic designer Dave Laffrey also provides a considerable amount of audience seating onstage at the fringes of his ramshackle set, and Arden adds a whirl of pre-show activity and buzz from his actors.

I suspected that the onstage spectators were plucked from the rear of the uppermost balcony, for I didn’t spy many other empty seats on opening night. A full house also nurtures that community feel, and word-of-mouth will no doubt extend the welcome of this cheery, warm-hearted entertainment.

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Complementing the ramshackle scenery are the makeshift Clint Ramos costume designs, enabling the peasantry to transform into gods simply by accessorizing. The most amusing transformation occurs when Kyle Ramar Freeman dons his Mother of Earth skirt as Asaka. But make no mistake, Jahmaul Bakare as Agwe and Cassondra James as Erzulie have no less flair as the God of Water and the Goddess of Love. Arden’s concept seems to want the gods both ways, earthy peasants and mighty deities at the same time.

Ahrens and Flaherty chime in well with this transparently folkloric attitude. “Some Say” offers multiple variants on how Ti Moun survived the arduous journey across the island to the grand hommes’s stronghold – implying that religion is storytelling, but so genially that few will realize their values are being challenged.

Breathing life, hope, and a sunburst of energy into all this Caribbean mythmaking is UNC School of the Arts grad Courtnee Carter as Ti Moun, dressed in flaming red from the moment she makes her star entrance, supplanting the precocious Mimi Crossland (alternating with Mariana Diop) playing the toddler Ti. Carter brings us the simplicity of Ti Moun’s purposefulness and the steadfast power of her conviction. “I know this,” she tells the villagers who advise her against nursing Daniel back to life: this is why the gods placed her here.

Carter belts her climactic ballad compellingly, though “Forever Yours” isn’t really special melodically, and when Papa Ge’s intrusion quickens the tempo just as a recovering Daniel has joined Ti Moun in duet, Carter’s “take my life – my soul – for his!” is heart-stopping and fearless. Tamyra Gray as Papa Ge gets the last fiendish cackle in this song and proves to be a formidable adversary, relishing her macabre stealth and her monstrous ashen costume.

Recumbent, recuperating, and rejecting, Michael Ivan Carrier never quite gets the chance to show us that Daniel is worthy of Ti Moun’s epic adoration. Get over it. Carrier does get the chance to show us he’s more textured than most Prince Charmings. Similarly, Ahrens and Flaherty provide meatier roles for Ti Moun’s adoptive parents than you’ll see for parents or stepparents of most Cinderellas and Sleeping Beautys. In “One Small Girl” and “Ti Moun,” Philip Boykin and Danielle Lee Graves demonstrate that Tonton Julian and Mama Euralie are as much the soul of the island as the gods.