Tag Archives: Katie Bearden

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.

ShakesCar Puts Women Behind “The Iron Mask”

Review:  The Man in the Iron Mask

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

Hand it to Shakespeare Carolina and Amy Schiede. Producing their own adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask outdoors at the Winthrop University Amphitheatre, they haven’t stinted on the swordplay or the fighting. Even though two of the major swashbuckling roles – identical twins who take turns ruling France as Louis XIV – have been handed over to women (including Schiede herself), the hostile action sustains a high standard.

Better yet, in choosing the final installment of the epic Three Musketeers saga, they’ve also maximized the drama and the suspense. Some of our heroes didn’t survive when Dumas closed the book on Aramis, Porthos, Athos, and D’Artagnan. Like the film and TV series before it, Schiede’s adaptation takes a free-range approach in incorporating plot points, assigning actions to various characters, and determining their fates. Perhaps the most suspenseful element is Schiede’s choice of which identical twin, Louis or Phillipe, ultimately sits on the throne.

The 1937 Hollywood version had it differently than the novel, serialized between 1847 and 1850.

There’s no hurry in unveiling Aramis’s plot to unseat King Louis as he brings Athos to a tailor to be measured for evening attire worthy of a reception that superintendent of finances Fouquet is hosting at his home for the conceited monarch. Aramis will need both Athos and Porthos to help free Phillipe from the Bastille, where he has been imprisoned since birth, unaware of his own royal origins. But we won’t learn the motives for Aramis’s machinations until much later. Needless to say, only lofty ambitions would justify such risk.

Fellow musketeers, Athos and Porthos don’t question Aramis closely at the outset, After all, didn’t they originate the famous gung-ho “All for one, and one for all!” slogan? But Aramis is sly enough not to divulge his scheme to D’Artagnan, who is fiercely loyal to the king despite reservations about Louis’s character. So with finance minister Colbert intriguing against Fouquet, D’Artagnan protecting Louis, and Phillipe totally ignorant about all that reigning as the king of France entails, there is plenty of suspense surrounding the success of the three musketeers’ plot.

Obviously, the perils won’t be over if Phillipe is secreted onto the throne.

With straight-arrow D’Artagnan on the royalist side of the conflict, you might experience some ambivalence about whom to root for as the moon rises over this production. David Hensley is rather starchy and subdued as D’Artagnan at the outset, making it easier for us to lean toward Aramis and Philippe, but Hensley does perk up when his king imperils his pals.

Tom Ollis makes sure that we see Aramis as more rascally and duplicitous than noble, but Schiede epitomizes naïveté and nonchalant regality as Philippe. She is surely the more righteous and beneficent claimant to the throne, especially since Katie Bearden revels in Louis’s arrogance, even when the monarch is cast into the Bastille and encased in the iron mask.

Charles Holmes directs at a near-galloping pace, which accounted for some bobbled lines on opening night and some audibility dropouts, particularly from a couple of the women. Nobody will find Holmes’s set designs particularly lavish when Louis holds court, nor do we descend into dim dreariness when we shift to the Bastille. Yet I liked the overall concept, placing the kings’ dungeon up a flight of stairs and above the action rather than below or in a dingy corner. Homage is paid to the idea that royals are imprisoned in towers awaiting their fates – and angelic Phillipe’s early monologue about being content with the daily sight of the skies plays better there.

Holmes also lurks onstage as Athos, sufficiently lighthearted to be carried along in the perilous drift of the musketeers’ plot, yet tender enough to be broken by the death of his son. David Hayes is even more rightfully cast as Porthos, the Ajax among the musketeers. Unfortunately, the prop fashioned for him at a climactic moment – the barrel of dynamite that he hurls into a tunnel – doesn’t sufficiently emphasize his preternatural strength.

A richer script from Schiede would have given Chris O’Neill more to work with in evoking Fouquet’s corrupt tendencies, but that opens the door for Gina Belmont to come off all the more wicked as his rival, Colbert. More detail might have helped us determine whether Anne, the queen mother, was duped by Colbert or strategically taking his side. Amy Hillard is so icily imperious as Anne that she’s also mysterious. Watch her faint when she sees the two twins standing in front of her for the first time. You’ll never know whether she’s shocked to learn she has two sons – or shocked to find that her evil plot against one of them has failed.

As Shakespeare Once Said: “Wanna Make Something of It?”

Theater review: [They Fight]

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Scrappy company that they are, Shakespeare Carolina didn’t simply throw in the towel when rights to stage Albert Camus’s Caligula were yanked away. No, as you can see at Duke Energy Theater, they decided to put up a fight – actually, eight of them from a cross-section of the Shakespeare’s work, plays that we’ve seen often in Charlotte as well as a couple we haven’t. [They Fight] is thus a pupu power platter of fight scenes from Hamlet, King Lear, As You Like It, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, plus a double serving of Romeo and Juliet.

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Conceiving, adapting, and fight choreographing the show, Charles Holmes has a good grasp of the guilty pleasure aspect of what ShakesCar is presenting. We get very little in Holmes’s set-up about what made Coriolanus ripe for his tragic fall and even less about his toxic mom, Volumnia. Nah, we’re going to “skip all that and go to the last three pages.” So Coriolanus fights Aufidius – not exactly as it happens in the text – but we’re spared the details of why they’re fighting. We do get the idea that Aufidius regards our hero as a traitor, and the outcome of his hubris is the same.

Other irreverent quips are sprinkled among the concise introductions. Once the characters strut onto the stage, Holmes’ alterations of the script only became annoying in a more familiar scene, where Edmund’s belated penitence in Lear after he is mortally wounded no longer occurs. Amid the hurly-burly of that brotherly brawl between Edmund and Edgar, which of the women is Goneril and which is Regan only gets clarified when one poisons the other – if you’re already familiar with the script.

But with less than two weeks to hone this fight anthology into performance trim, the cast does well, auguring well for ShakesCar’s upcoming productions of The Taming of the Shrew and August Strindberg’s Miss Julie later this summer. From a fighting standpoint, another fight choreographer or two would help to prevent us from thinking we’re seeing the same thrusts, slashes, and parries over and over. But Holmes and stage director Chris O‘Neill are cagey enough to insert fights, one in each half of the show, that leap outside the swashbuckling envelope.

The first of these is the bout between Orlando and Charles the Wrestler from the opening act of As You Like It, with the imposing David Hayes portraying Charles with full WWWF-style villainy, strutting invincibly and baiting the crowd as he seemingly destroys the hapless Zade Patterson as our hero – to the horror of Amy Hilliard as Rosalind and Mandy Kendall as Celia. Patterson returned in a far more comical turn after intermission as Cloten, the spoiled son of the evil conniving queen in Cymbeline – with as much aptitude for mortal combat as Tim Conway.

David Hensley as Guiderius butchers this arrogant pipsqueak, with Kevin Sario as Guiderius’ brother and Manu Barbe as their “father”/kidnapper looking on. Before tasting Guiderius’ sword, Cloten is also on the receiving end of some badinage about his clothing, so Kendall, doubling as costumer, rightfully drapes Hensley in a dopey, gleaming outfit that underscores Cloten’s foppery. Looks good on Hensley, though, after he emerges victorious.

Sad to say, Kendall and O’Neill had just been asleep at the wheel in the Lear showdown, where that bastard Edmund is not supposed to recognize his legitimate brother Edgar until after he is defeated. Yeah, that Lear scene could stand some rethinking.
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With the second half of [They Fight] rounded out by the classic fencing bout from Hamlet and the famed “Lay on, Macduff!” clash from Macbeth, the show attains heights that the early action can’t match. Pitted against Hamlet as Laertes, Ted Patterson does get his chance to make his confession on the brink of death, while Kevin Aoussou adds the most satisfying portion to the carnage as the justly traduced King Claudius. Holmes makes his most impressive combat appearance as the deluded Macbeth, while the strapping Hayes is more of a Galahad than an underdog as the implacable Macduff.Now the fights from Romeo and Juliet, both presented before intermission, are lively enough – and the second one, Tybalt versus Mercutio, is certainly climactic. But Romeo certainly earns Mercutio’s “both your houses” imprecation with his unfortunate intervention, not a flattering farewell to this great Shakespearean hero. So Holmes and O’Neill have judged rightly in placing these populous scuffles before the break, with Katie Bearden as Tybalt, Robert Brafford as Mercutio, and Andrew White as the peace-loving Romeo.

But why have an intermission at all when your running time totals less than 70 minutes? Three more fights, one less intermission, and two more weeks of rehearsal to sharpen the tech and the combat would make [They Fight] very worthy of a second round. It would be fun – more fun – to see what this show would look like if it were brought back in less haste. While Holmes’ choreography ably simulates the fight scenes of Hollywood action flicks, it would add a little if Holmes and his combatants owned up to the fakery and absurdity of it all. Just once in a while.

Oh yeah, and it would also be nice to see Caligula at the Duke someday. That is, if the sonuvabitch holding onto the rights so tightly would let the show go on.