Heartbreak House: Theatre for a New Audience stages a harrowing ‘King Lear’
Michael Pennington is the maddened monarch at Downtown Brooklyn's Shakespeare-centric playhouse
Michael Pennington will break your heart. That’s his job, and he does it magnificently.
Pennington, one of England’s foremost classical actors, is a King Lear to grieve for in Shakespeare’s darkest play, which opened Thursday, March 27 at the Theatre for a New Audience.
The 40-year acting veteran commands the bare brown stage of the stunning new Downtown Brooklyn playhouse with a masterful portrayal of the mighty monarch gone mad because of his folly of putting his fate, and his nation’s, in the hands of his feral daughters.
His Lear is harrowing to watch – from his first moment in the spotlight, when he parcels out his kingdom to the flattery-slinging sibs with an arrogant wave of his hand over a map, till he breathes his last with dead Cordelia (played by angel-faced Lilly Englert) in his arms.
This is the 70-year-old Pennington’s first time in the role of Lear. It’s something special to have him perform it in Brooklyn, under the direction of Arin Arbus, rather than in Great Britain.
In the young American woman’s Off-Broadway debut year, The New York Times called her “the most gifted new director to emerge in 2009.”
Pennington, an honorary associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has played most of the Bard’s male leads, including Berowne, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Henry V, Richard II – and Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra” with Kim Cattrall from “Sex and the City.”
His portrayal of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 was voted by British critics Michael Billington and Benedict Nightingale as one of the 10 best in 50 years of theater-going.
A two-time Olivier Award nominee, Pennington was the co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company. He created and performed “Sweet William,” a solo show about Shakespeare, and solo show “Anton Chekhov.” He has written eight books, among them “Sweet William, Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare” and “Are You There, Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekhov.”
Americans who know their movies better than live theater remember Pennington from “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” He played the commander of the Death Star, Moff Jerjerrod.
“King Lear” is the second production for Shakespeare-centric TFANA in its new playhouse at 262 Ashland Place. The theater, which had no home of its own for three decades, opened its $69 million venue last fall with a widely acclaimed “Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by “Lion King” creative genius Julie Taymor.
It was a big deal for Taymor, whose reputation had taken a beating because of injuries to airborne actors in her Broadway rendition of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.”
Her “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – which had flying actors galore – prompted critic Jonathan Mandell to proclaim on his blog New York Theater, “It is time to love Julie Taymor again.”
Getting a permanent home for the Bard built in Brooklyn was, in and of itself, a big deal. The process took TFANA’s founding artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz 17 years. It’s only fitting that TFANA begin its life in the BAM Cultural District with big, bold work – and it doesn’t get any bigger than “Lear.”
As George Bernard Shaw famously asserted, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than ‘Lear.’”
Fortunately, the other cast members bring their A-game, too, so Pennington’s in good company.
The stage is bare of scenery during the play’s three-hours-plus running time.
Just a few choice props are deployed, such as swords, of course, and a boar’s head which is a bloody trophy Lear’s retinue of knights picked up while hunting. And when icily alluring daughter Regan (Bianca Amato) helps her thuggish husband the Duke of Cornwall (Saxon Palmer) gouge the eyes out of the Earl of Gloucester (Christopher McCann) as punishment for protecting Lear, a mangled eyeball and a beaker’s worth of blood spatter the stage.
Otherwise, aside from helpful sound effects during Lear’s wild night on the storm-struck heath and a battle scene, it’s up to the actors’ skillful wielding of Shakespeare’s words to bring Lear’s hellish world to life.
Pennington does it to perfection, in moments large and small.
Early on, he shows how unhinged Lear is with a swift switch from volcanic anger to torrential tears in a face-off with his splendidly wicked daughter Goneril (Rachel Pickup).
You quake when he curses her to being barren or bearing an evil child so she will know “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a thankless child!”
These are famous Shakespeare verses you’re waiting to hear – and Pennington makes them searing.
So, too, is his piteous mourning of dead Cordelia: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never.”
For those whose aged fathers once held kingly sway over their clans, there’s an added layer of personal anguish in seeing Lear mired in madness and confusion. After Cordelia has rescued him and he awakes and doesn’t know who she is, it’s hard not to sob.
As a side note, it’s thrilling to hear other famous verses as the tragedy plays out – like the rebuke the Duke of Albany (Graham Winton) delivers to Goneril: “Tigers, not daughters, what have you performed?” And blinded Gloucester’s famous lament: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods:/ They kill us for their sport.”
Favorable mention should also be made of other actors.
Chandler Williams as Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund is an oily and engaging foil to Jacob Fishel as legitimate son Edgar, who feigns lunacy with rubbery-limbed finesse so he can look after his father. The Earl of Kent (Timothy D. Stickney) and the Fool (Jake Horowitz) are touching as Lear’s faithful companions in extremis.
The Polonsky Shakespeare Center, as TFANA’s new venue is called, is a mix of Elizabethan-style courtyard playhouse and modern black-box theater. Its design by renowned theater architect Hugh Hardy was inspired by the former Cottesloe Theatre, which is part of the National Theatre in London.
“King Lear,” which is the sixth Shakespeare play TFANA’s associate artistic director Arbus has staged for the theater, runs through May 4. Tickets are available at www.tfana.org or by phone at 866-811-4111.
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