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A CurtainUp Review
This two-time Olivier nominee and celebrated international artist performs Lear as if he were born to play the role. Teaming up with Theatre for a New Audience's (TFANA) Associate Artistic Director Arin Arbus, Pennington joins his English acting tradition to Arbus' inventive American direction. And the result is close to perfection.
Pennington is no stranger to TFANA. Several seasons ago he graced their stage in Love is my Sin directed by Peter Brook), a dramatization of selected love sonnets from the Bard. If Pennington roller coasted through the highs and lows of romantic love in that lyrical project, he goes to the chilling core of Shakespeare's most radical tragedy with this production.
Though other recent Lears — Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, Sam Waterston, and Frank Langella — have bellowed louder, Pennington delivers more of the play's quiet bitterness. And he does so with bite.
There's another plus to this Lear: its intimacy. Ulike Langella's recent Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) huge Harvey stage, Pennington performs in the small 265-seat Scripps Theater. On entering the Scripps, one sees a thrust stage, three banks of seats and several ramps along its perimeter that allow the actors (there are 22 in this full-bodied production) to make seamless entrances and exits, and on certain occasions, to be third-party voyeurs before fully entering the action.
The artistic strength of this stage is that its architecture mirrors certain aspects of Globe, Curtain, Rose and Blackfriars. Aesthetically pleasing, it also achieves what Shakespeare's original theater did: an honest and intimate relationship between actor and audience.
It's no accident that Pennington seamlessly slips into Lear's skin either. In his lengthy career, he has played many of the major Shakespeare parts: Hamlet, Berowne, Angelo, Timon, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Henry V, Richard II, and Antony. And, oh yes! He played Posthumus opposite Helen Mirren in the BBC's Cymbeline production.
The solemn mood and atmosphere of this production are generated immediately through its visual imagery. The stage is completely bare, except for a tall table at center stage. With the minimalist set by Riccardo Hernandez suggesting no specific time or place, the barren pessimism of Lear isimmediately palpable.
There's no doubt that Pennington has a strong presence. From the moment he enters in Act 1, in a long purple coat with brown fur-trimmed collar (costumes by Susan Hilferty), he is at the center of the domestic tragedy. And as he walks to the tall table (no throne here!) at center stage, his stern authority is imposing, and grows even more so as he divides up his kingdom for his three daughters in the love-test scene. Pennington's body language and facial expressions are spot on, and his voice is cashmere-smooth as he articulates the verse.
The actor penetrates Shakespeare's verbiage with telling inflections and pauses for each speech. And as the play runs its course, he exquisitely taps into Shakespeare's darkly disturbing music. Unlike 0 some classical actors Pennington never sounds stuffy and fake.
While Pennington is indisputably the kingpin here, the entire cast holds it own, with some notable acting turns. As Goneril, Rachel Pickup is a militant housewife in command. Bianca Amato's Regan is softer and more feminine on the surface, but equally as cruel. Lilly Englert's Cordelia has the fierce spirit of Joan of Arc, and in her stubbornness is very much her father's daughter.
In the Gloucester plot, Chandler Williams' Edmund is rightly an ice-cold villain. Jacob Fishel impersonates Edgar with a twist of wry humor and "Poor Tom" with more soberness than most Toms. Another surprise is in Christopher McCann's Gloucester, who looks less the old lecher than a fallible human being in search of his humanity.
In what seems to be a growing trend, Jake Horowitz's Fool is young, light on his feet, and uses vaudeville routines for his egg joke and finger-pointing (at Lear's folly, of course) speeches. The rest of the cast is competent, if less fleshed out in their individual characters.
Up to a point, this production is quite traditional. But Arbus places her own mark on it by taking poetic license with Shakespeare's text at times. The Fool who disappears from Lear following the famous storm scene in Act 3 Scene 6, reappears here in a later scene and hangs himself on stage. This directorial choice is potent. Though purists will rightly see it as an adaptation rather than interpretation of Shakespeare's play, it works in this grounded production.
Speaking of the storm, it is evoked more through Pennington's tour de force acting than any special effects. Though there are a series of thunderclaps and some jarring music (Composer Michael Attias and Co-Sound Designers Attias and Nicholas Pope) to heighten the language, Pennington's Lear embodies the storm here.
While Lear is often viewed as too horrific to stage, even Shakespeare's toughest critic George Bernard Shaw admired it and noted that "no man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear." Whether one agrees with this Shavian verdict or not, Pennington and Arbus have hit a high water mark with this second production of TFANA's inaugural season at their new home in Brooklyn. Following on the heels of Julie Taymor's Midsummer Night's Dream, this makes for two wins at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Not a bad beginning at all.