On Sunday, August 28, we went to American Players Theatre near Spring Green for a “double-header” of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and “Arcadia,” by Tom Stoppard.
APT’s new production of “King Lear” featured Jonathan Smoots in the title role, and was done modern dress, with some current-era props and effects. Lear’s division of his kingdom is done as an outdoor press-conference, complete with podium and visual aids. Lear’s elder daughters, Goneril (Laura Rook) and Regan (Kelsey Brennan) show up in sleek and stylish outfits modeled on some worn by current real-world princesses. Cordelia (Melisa Pereya), on the other hand, is more girlish and nerdy, a presentation that suits her earnest character.
In this scene, we also meet the Duke of Gloucester (James Ridge), the Duchess of Kent (Greta Oglesby), and Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund (Marcus Truschinski), all of whom will have a sizable role to play in the drama to come.
I did not think the modern setting worked for Lear as well as for some other Shakespeare plays, and in some ways clunked, notably the fight scenes. In an era where assault rifles are common, hand-to-hand combat often takes a back seat for logical reasons. It’s not very credible when unarmed Edgar (Eric Parks), who’s been living rough as “Poor Tom” and who has been portrayed as a playboy rather than a fighter, takes down Goneril’s messenger Oswald (Christopher Sheard), who’s already covering him with a pistol. When Edgar challenges Edmund, their “duel” is a bare-handed wrestling match, unlikely even if portrayed in the mythic Britain of Shakespeare. Giving soldiers modern assault gear and weapons somehow made them more menacing than if they had been outfitted with mail and swords.
On the other hand, some of the role gender-shifting made more feasible by the modern setting worked well. When Kent (Oglesby) is banished by Lear, she renders herself unrecognizable by assuming the clothes, manners, and accent of a working-class black woman. Cristina Panfilio gives the role of Lear’s Fool a female stand-up comedian vibe, and does her songs in an indie-folk style that works well.
While a fine, solid, and affecting performance, I wasn’t totally satisfied with Smoots’ Lear. Lear starts the play as an aged, but vigorous man, and, through the course of events, becomes more aged both physically and mentally, such that, by the end, he dies through a combination of exhaustion and lack of a will to live. We really didn’t see that in this performance, as Lear blusters on nearly unstoppably until the final scene.
The character who really goes through the wringer in this production is Ridge’s Gloucester, who goes from a strong and confident character to a broken man after his blinding. Truschinski, playing a relatively rare villain role, was believable as a man capable of fooling his father and seducing both Goneril and Regan. Kudos, too, to Ms. Rook and Ms. Brennan who succeeded in giving Goneril and Regan distinctive characters, instead of making them just the two “ugly sisters.” Brennan’s Regan is a wheedler, free with fake smiles and hugs. She makes a good consort for her thuggish husband, Cornwall (Bobby Bowman), whereas Ms. Rook as Goneril freely lets her claws show, compensating for what she sees as the conscience-ridden weakness of her husband, Albany (Cedric Mays).
I didn’t mind the modern costuming—after a while I pretty much ignored it, although there were a couple of inexplicable choices: Although all the other soldiers are in modern dress, including the Duke of Albany, Edmund, as leader of Cornwall’s forces, wears a 19th Century general’s uniform, apparently only so he can have a sword that is used later. Regan, in her last appearance, is given an outfit that is more suited for clubbing at a particularly louche nightspot, rather than visiting a battlefield. Odd.
We were glad to see that APT was doing Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” which is a favorite of ours. It is a dauntingly intricate play, not only to stage, with its intersecting character sets from 1809 and the “present day,” but intellectually and linguistically as well. The director’s notes remark that the play includes: “Lord Byron, Sir Issac Newton, love, the Second law of Thermodynamics, grouse, Chaos Theory, the history of landscape gardening, Time’s Arrow, fractals and iterated algorithms, and the Classical and Romantic temperaments. It is a detective story and a story of the ecstatic hunger of wanting to know, well, everything.”
The play in 1809 focuses on Thomasina Coverly (Rebecca Hurd), a mathematically gifted young girl, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Nate Burger). Thomasina is on the verge of mathematical breakthroughs that won’t be rediscovered for 150 years or more. Hodge, on the other hand, is on the verge of being embroiled in a duel over the easy virtue of the wife of his friend, Ezra Chater (Casey Hoekstra).
In the modern day, the Coverly’s stately home has become a sort of informal research center: Valentine Coverly (Steve Haggard), computer scientist, is attempting to codify the estate’s game books in order to derive an algorithm for the breeding cycles of grouse; Hannah Jarvis (Colleen Madden), a writer, is researching the transformation of the estate’s Classical 18th Century landscaping into a 19th Century Romantic design; and egotistical academic Bernard Nightingale (Jim DeVita) descends upon the property in hot pursuit of some possible unknown history of Lord Byron.
The braided stories intertwine fascinatingly. In the 19th Century, we gradually see what actually happened play out, while in the 20th, we see how even the most well-meaning research can take itself down wrong paths.
All of the cast members were absolutely fine, and handled the difficult text with perfect clarity and exquisite timing. Not only is it intellectually challenging, it’s laugh-out-loud funny (and even funnier if you get all the references).