King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by John Hadden and Ava Roy.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman."
"We shall express our darker purpose."
It is a rare privilege for a critic to be invited to review a dress rehearsal; the company at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY extended me that courtesy so that I could witness and report on the work that has absorbed so many of them for so many months. They are presenting one of the most difficult and exquisite dramas ever written in the English language, and with language so beautiful and poetic and imagistic that it cannot be rushed into production and thrown onto the stage. King Lear is a play not easy for audiences or actors or directors to handle. The title role is one that many professionals fear and that many see as the ultimate goal for an actor to attain. John Hadden has approached the role as both actor and director and he has brought on a co-director, Ava Roy (a very smart approach to take) and she has undertaken one of the most difficult female roles in Shakespeare’s canon, Lear’s daughter Cordelia. I think these two are among the finest risk-takers in show business today (Miley Cyrus take note - shaking your booty is not a risk; playing Cordelia is!).
Attending the dress rehearsal was a decent sized audience including about forty school children, teenagers who are more the Cyrus audience than Shakespeare’s natural inheritors. They sat rapt and the only negative comment I overheard from them was "wow, that was long." The company at Hubbard Hall held their attention and their reaction at the end of the play consisted of cheers and applause and a few tears along the way. I would say that the company did their jobs well, for this play concerns not only madness and greed but the destruction of an entire family as the result of uncontrolled lust, overwhelming inattention to the elderly, jealousy of brothers, and assorted other elements that make the family dynamic so utterly enthralling.
King Lear has three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia, the first two married to men of substance and the third being wooed by the King of France, among others. When Lear decides to divide his substantial kingdom into three parts and to give those allotments to his daughters long before his own death should occur, he starts the ball rolling on his own undoing (parents take note - don’t give away your fortune while you’re alive. It doesn’t necessarily make for a happy senior citizen experience.). Ultimately abused and rejected by two of his children, Lear is left with a deep, deep sense of betrayal, something he already has experienced, and the result of all of this is a fall into insanity which doesn’t exactly lighten the load.
He knows this is the potential from the get-go, hence "our darker purpose." What he doesn’t know is how far this purpose may take him into the collective losses that the divesting of property brings about. The magic of this play is our discovering along with Lear that we create the consequences, how we do it and what we may find at the end of the journey. This is perfectly wrought by this company. I have seen six production of King Lear in my lifetime and this time is the best time for this worst time of a man’s life.
John Hadden takes some risks as King Lear. He doesn’t rant as some actors have done in the past; he takes us on the addled, rattled road of Lear’s final battles with a grace that is not often found in kings. He shows us that gentle intentions linger after their consummation. He plays Lear with a lighter purpose, really, and he allows us to feel not just the injustice and tragedy in the man’s life, but also the horror and the despair and the intense joy of a man who understands his own mistakes and the importance of true friendship. Hadden creates a whole man and not a symbol in this performance and the two and a half hours of this play (cut to a playable length) are dense and intense and strong and remarkable through his portrayal of a man who trusted and has lost his gamble in his gambol.
Cordelia is the daughter who Lear believes has betrayed him and Ava Roy shows the girl’s truest side from her first entrance. If there is a purity in the simplest form of love, Roy conveys it in her looks, her glances, her verbal asides, her attempt to thwart the obvious intents of her sisters by showing a different side of the human relationship of fathers and children. Cordelia is not successful in her first scenes with Lear, but her ultimate honesty bears fruit in his madness. Roy also portrays the Fool, a faithful servant to the king who accompanies him on his long road to comprehension. So good is she in this role that it is possible to forget that she has already introduced us to Cordelia, yet both have faith in Lear, both will never betray him, both are there with the returned admiration and love he seeks. Roy does differentiate the two in a classic manner, but yet the audience’s longing for the Fool and Cordelia to actually be the same person rather than just two sides of a psychological coin helps to bridge the unnatural gaps in Lear’s confused brains.
The treacherous Edmund, brother of Edgar (sons of Gloucester) is played with a wonderful sensuality by Gino Costabile. He has enough magnetism to justify Goneril and Regan falling in love with him, betraying their husbands. He handles the language along with the psychology of the role in an easy way making him seem the most realistically portrayed character in the play. As his brother Edgar, James Udom plays with the elements in his role moving from cowardly to crafty to most loving of all adult children with easy, logical transitions and showing each of his basic elements brilliantly. Their father is played by Doug Ryan who was not at his best in the first half of the play but who blindly leads us and himself into the light of fine acting in the second half.
Regan is played by Myka Plunkett and Goneril by Carmen-Maria Mandley. Both women are strong and decisive in their roles. That neither character is likeable is ideal and they bring us those aspects of these women. That Lear cannot see through their lies early on is part of the tragedy of the play as written; that this particular Lear cannot see through them is hard to believe as their falseness is obvious from the beginning. Their husbands are portrayed by Avery Barger and Scott Renzoni. Renzoni, in particular, gives a remarkably good performance as Albany. With each role he undertakes his skills improve. This is among his best work anywhere.
Kent, misunderstood by Lear and never acknowledged for his faith in the king, is played very nicely by John Terry. The rest of this company of sixteen players do well, especially Maizy Scarpa as the King of France and Oswald.
Doug Seldin has choreographed some very compelling fight sequences that will hold an audience through the reality of the battles. He has also done some nice work in his lighting design. The famous storm scene needed some work when I saw it at the rehearsal but will hopefully be improved. Sound design by John Rosmus was a bit confusing at times; again some changes may be made after this dress rehearsal.
All in all I was delighted with this King Lear. A long drive through three major snow squalls was justified in the fine performance of one of the great plays of all time. How’s that for an accolade!
John Hadden and Ava Roy; photo: John Sutton
John Hadden as King Lear; photo: John Sutton
John Hadden and James Udom; photo: John Sutton
King Lear plays through March 23 at Hubbard Hall, located at 25 East Main Street in Cambridge, New York. For information and tickets check out their website at hubbardhall.org or call (518) 677-2495.