The tip-tapping of a late May rain is hardly ever welcome on the Upper West Side, especially on the opening night of New York Classical Theatre’s King Lear in Central Park. The misty rain dampened the air and orchestrated the rustling trees in the wind, creating a soundscape like a rainforest meditation CD, a perfect set up for Lear’s stormy tale ahead. That night’s performance was cancelled by director and NYCT’s Artistic Director Stephen Burdman for the safety of the actors—and the bonus comfort of the numbered audience members—but the company was back the next night, eager for a belated opening with clear skies.
Even without the atmospheric soundtrack, the latter part of the play was set perfectly against the many hills and curvy paths around the Great Hill lake, near the 103rd and Central Park West entrance. Outside of the walls of the Park, the manicured brick apartments rise high, a better setting than an open lawn to start the play, which felt too spacious to emphasize the contrast between civilized and natural chaos. But the panoramic Central Park scenery had enough storm from the night before to enhance all the wandering and confusion the story delves into after leaving court. One great advantage of an outdoor, moving audience that NYCT utilizes is the natural way an audience can come into a scene. First noted in the preliminary exchange between Goneril and Oswald, the scene starts before the audience is completely settled, sacrificing some throw away lines to give the feeling that we are eavesdropping on a private conversation. This spontaneous feeling withers in the longer scenes, where odd blocking angles and some actors playing to the audience makes art into artifice, but when it works, it creates dynamic characters. The act of coming into a scene even keeps the eye from wandering to the joggers and families that ogle the actors with a skeptical or delighted stare.
Though, to be fair, the company does stand apart from the running shorts-and-stroller crowd. Clothed in simple, functionally moveable tunics with bold colors, the men are strong, sure of themselves and the world they live in, until the play unfolds. Goneril is dressed as a noble lady in a rich burgundy dress with a square neckline, while Reagan struts in an ornate seafoam brocaded dress, cut purposefully off the shoulder to the point of tackiness. Cordelia is dressed simply in a white summer dress, perfectly befitting her maiden status. Lear holds court in a crown and royal purple doublet, a stunning accent against the surrounding greenery.
Donald Grody as Lear is an authoritative king and a despicable father. Grody uses forced humor to diffuse the awkwardness of discussing Lear’s age and impending death, which only serves to make it more awkward for his court and slightly humorous for the audience. The most astonishing moment in the first scene comes when Grody banishes Kent (John-Patrick Driscoll) moments after he takes the crown from his head and throws it on the ground at his conniving daughters’ feet. Wait, can he banish someone from a place that he gave up? Is he still a king if he forfeited a kingdom? This is the true division—those who follow the authority of Lear, and those who follow the power of the crown—that underscores this production.
With his fool and the disguised Kent by his side, Lear wanders in the land that is no longer his, between his daughters that used him and cast him aside. Driscoll is less noble and more militant than others might interpret Kent, but it reinforces his taste for a fight and fierce loyalty to the king. Acting as a nursemaid and scolding schoolteacher, the Fool (Andrew Sellon) doles out tonics to calm Lear while chastising him through humor and logic, the only way to avoid offending him. Sellon also infuses genuine concern for Lear, worrying about his physical and mental health, desperate to keep him from harm; he is a fool by trade, a caregiver by loyalty and love. It is congruent, then, that when Lear appears without his fool for the first time, he has breached his own sanity. Lear becomes child-like, dressed in a white nightgown and crowned King of the Loons with a coronet of flowers set on his head. And yet, even in the whirl of madness, Grody gives great vocal projection and clarity, battling outdoor acoustics plus wind to bring us Lear’s fall from a king to a man. He occasionally surfaces from the fog, as when Cordelia returns, robed in a blue cape of France, a queenly demeanor, and angelic sympathy. She takes him under her wing, but when she is gone too, there is no hope for Lear but to follow his fool and his daughter.
Cordelia (Heather Wood) begins as an innocent, sweet-natured daughter, even bordering on naïve. Some of the cuts that keep the show at concisely two hours undercut her discerning intelligence. She doesn’t debate her sisters’ answers in conflicted asides, and her famous “Nothing” to Lear becomes a lighthearted quip about Goneril and Reagan marrying, not a contemplatively honest answer. She approaches the subject the same way that this Lear jokes about death, but he wants affirmation of his royal and paternal ability, not cute puns that show off Cordelia’s wit. At the sight of their father disowning his favorite daughter, Goneril (Amy Landon) is shocked, even horrified, but Reagan (Kate MacCluggage) is already scheming and plotting in her favor. Not surprisingly, this is the sister that kills a serving man while her husband bleeds to death and then wants to marry Edmund to irk Goneril.
Edgar (Vince Nappo) enters his first scene unarmed, in a boldly righteous blue and burgundy tunic, and falls headfirst into his bastard brother’s malicious trap. Edmund is an Iago with apparent motive, but Torsten Hillhouse seems rather stiff in the part, almost too noble to have such deception underneath the courtly mask. All too trusting, Nappo portrays Edgar with a touch of bewilderment, so confused as the world moves so quickly around him, he has no thought but to follow into the lion’s den. Later as Poor Tom, Nappo shines with the craziness in his eye that is a little too melodramatic to fool us but enough to fake insanity among the mad and the blind, or the soon to be. The juxtaposition between Edgar-as-Poor-Tom’s clearly put-on madness and Lear’s waning sanity is all too painfully apparent. Tom via Edgar feigns madness, but in the end, Lear becomes it.
Performances: May 28-June 21, 2009 in Central Park, June 23-July 7, 2009 in Battery Park