Monday, April 29, 2019

Play a Day: King Lear

This is a year of many auspicious anniversaries.

Thirty years ago I performed my first Shakespearean role, that of Friar John in Romeo and Juliet. Twenty-five years ago I directed my first Shakespeare, which was also Romeo and Juliet. In that production I provided a recorded voice over for Prince Escalus.

Twenty years ago I directed Hamlet, and did a walk-on as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

I have performed a few other Shakespearean roles. Petruchio in the Guerrilla Theater Company production of The Taming of the Shrew. Bardolph in Henry IV for Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. Pistol in the Merry Wives of Windsor at Great Lakes Theater, and also in The Tempest as Adrian.

What? You don’t know who Adrian is? He is the least-consequential named character in all of Shakespeare. He has a name, "yet--" he does nothing and provides absolutely no information we do not already know. In this production his signal contribution was to get his head bitten off by a harpy.

The fact is, in spite of being regarded as a Shakespeare guy, I have performed very little Shakespeare. This summer, however, I will be playing one of my very favorite roles, that of the Earl of Kent in the True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, or as more popularly known, King Lear.

As Adrian with Dougfred Miller as Antonio
The Tempest, Great Lakes Theater (2007)
Is it just me, or is this play going through something of a renaissance in the 21st Century? Is it because the Baby Boomers are entering their final years and want to redefine him for a new age?

I have had the opportunity to witness a couple iconic performances of King Lear in my time. In 1990 we and a college group visited London and Stratford and saw Lear performed by John Wood, who most Gen X Americans would know as Professor Falken from the motion picture War Games. The two standout performances were that of the non-yet-famous Ralph Fiennes and Alex Kingston as Edmund and Cordelia, respectively.

Several years later, Toni and I were in London and saw Ian Holm play Lear at the National, following his long hiatus from the stage. On that trip I picked up a copy of the book Shakespeare Made Fit: Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare edited by Sandra Clark.

In that I learned of Nahum Tate’s adaptation of Lear, in which he created a much happier conclusion, one in which Edgar and Cordelia (who never speak to one another in Shakespeare’s original) fall in love and overthrow Edmund to live as King and Queen of a united England. Published in 1681, “Tate’s Lear” was the favored version until around 1863, when William Macready staged the first truly popular restoration of Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

David Troughton as Tom, right
With Penelope Wilton
The Norman Conquests, BBC (1977)
It was Tate’s version that was to be my third Shakespearean production, announced for Cleveland Shakespeare Festival’s 2000 summer season. When it became necessary to abridge that year’s production schedule from three productions to two, Tate’s Lear was cancelled. We had a wonderful cast who were tremendously disappointed, and it still pains me to remember that I let them down, having made the proposal myself not to move ahead with the production.

Ironically, perhaps, one of the other two productions that year was a compact and modern production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Eric Schmiedl. Referred to as “The GQ Love’s Labour’s,” Eric had cut the text down to just the lovers’ story (no Don Armado, sorry, no Holoferenes) punctuating the narrative with a few passages from popular magazines describe what the modern person wants in a relationship.

My relationship with Eric goes back to our tenures briefly overlapping at Karamu in the early 90s, later we were in the Cleveland Play House Playwrights’ Unit. He has directed me in Sarah Morton’s Night Bloomers, Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries, and now we are entering the rehearsal process for a streamlined, studio production of King Lear at the Beck Center for the Arts.

Kent is such a desirable role for a man my age, and I hope I can do him justice. He has the first line of the play, and it is entirely unassuming, one of the rare circumstance in Shakespeare when the action just starts, right in the middle of a conversation, Kent speaking with the Earl of Gloucester about a point of interest which has marginal bearing upon the issues of the narrative.

He is pressed into action, having to suddenly bridge a confounding gap and is forced into action he couldn’t have considered five minutes previously. He is not particularly remarkable, except for his absolute devotion to those he loves, sharp wit, and his ability to kick a young man’s ass.

David Troughton as Earl of Kent, right
With Linda Kerr Scott and John Wood
King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company (1990)
I have seen two men whose performances as Kent rest upon my shoulders. The first was David Troughton, whose work I had first seen when he played Tom in the BCC production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. Why a ten year old would be watching a British comedy about intimate relationships you can blame on my brother, regardless I remembered him when our school group visited Stratford that 1990.

Troughton was a then-member of the RSC, and in addition to leading workshops and acting as a mediator between our team and the company, he and his wife Alison welcomed us into their home and they were just remarkably kind and thoughtful people.

He and Ciarán Hinds conducted the final battle between Achilles and Hector (respectively) from Troilus and Cressida for us during a stage combat workshop. I saw him play Holoferenes in Love’s Labour’s Lost onstage, and he was Kent to John Wood’s Lear.

It was a remarkable week.

Most recently, I saw the production at Great Lakes Theater, directed by Joseph Hanreddy. That was four years ago. Hanreddy has done such marvelous work with our company, and this was no exception, a towering performance by Aled Davies in the lead role. His Kent, his "Caius" was Dougfred Miller.

I first met Doug the summer of 2005, when we played Merry Wives of Windsor at Great Lakes. Doing summer shows, my birthday often overlaps rehearsal or performance (this has happened numerous times) but I don't tell anyone. There's too much, I want it to be about me. That July 26 I walked into Becky's after rehearsal, on my own, prepared to drink a solitary toast to my own 37th anniversary. Doug was there at the bar and invited me to sit with him -- I hadn't really gotten to know anyone in the cast yet, and he expressed a deep, sincere interest in me, which was very gratifying on such a day.

Dougfred Miller as Earl of Kent, right
With Cassandra Bissell
King Lear, Great Lakes Theater (2015)
The next year we created a great moment together on stage for The Tempest -- the one in which I played the least consequential named character in Shakespeare. Doug was Antonio, the usurping Duke. Director Andrew May had stage these moments where Ariel was literally playing with us -- we were like puppets on strings. She paused us as I (as Adrian) had made a fist, as to strike Antonio. We were released and I hit him, Doug (as Antonio) reeled from the impact, as our "strings" were cut, sending us crashing to the floor.

Not remembering having been in this state, I rose from the floor, rubbing my hand as he rose rubbing his chin. We looked at each other -- and then away. A marvelous take. If anyone in the audience caught the exchange, I have absolutely no idea.

A performer possessed in equal measures great compassion, dedication to craft, an unparalleled wit and god-like sense of comic timing, his Kent was to me emblematic of Doug's work at its finest.

As we begin rehearsals for King Lear this evening, I enter the only way I could, following the example of such generous men, with humility and hope.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, May 31 - June 30, 2019.

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