Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Through May 4, $60-$85
Another Lear? Really? That is sure to be one of the central topics of discussion at the April 4 Drama Desk luncheon panel discussion “Why Shakespeare? Why Now?” at Sardi’s. Over the last seven years in New York, the Bard’s aged ruler has been portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Frank Langella at BAM, Kevin Kline and Sam Waterston at the Public, and currently Michael Pennington at Theatre for a New Audience, with John Lithgow scheduled to take on the role at the Delacorte this summer, directed by Daniel Sullivan. (Both Pennington and Sullivan will participate in the “Why Now?” panel at Sardi’s.) For a supposedly difficult play, there have not only been a lot of Lears lately but a lot of excellent Lears, each with its own nuanced lead performances and unique staging. “Why Lear? Why now?” Perhaps the answer should be “Why not?” as evidenced by yet another outstanding production, at TNA’s sparkling new Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, around the corner from BAM’s Harvey.
In a 2012 interview with OffWestEnd.com, Pennington said, “I want to do King Lear in a small theatre. I would really like to see how intimate you can get.” Pennington got his wish, starring in the beautifully spare TNA production directed by Arin Arbus. The heart-wrenching tale of fathers and children takes place on a thrust stage, the tiny audience of 265 sitting on three sides. Aside from an occasional chair, table, or bench, the only prop on Riccardo Hernandez’s set is a giant slab of rusted metal hanging in the back, slowly making its way down as if it will eventually crush the performers while also evoking the sad fall of the king. The twenty-two actors enter and leave through three corners of the stage, two of which are walkways that go right past the audience. Pennington, who has played myriad Shakespeare characters for his own English Shakespeare Company as well as for the RSC, arrives in a fabulous fur-lined purple coat and golden crown (the costumes, which include a great collection of boots, are by Susan Hilferty), asking his three daughters to publicly praise him in order to each receive a third of his kingdom. While Regan (Bianca Amato) and Goneril (Rachel Pickup) are clearly overeffusive with their love, the youngest, Cordelia (Lilly Englert), merely states her true emotions, so her furious father banishes her, setting off a series of tragic events that tear multiple families apart. This Lear is more human, more down to earth, allowing Shakespeare’s lush, complex text to shine. The language and story are key here, the characterizations and plot clearer, with less artifice, than in other recent productions. And Pennington is nothing less than grand, acting with his eyes as much as his body as he realizes that his mind is going and that he has made a terrible mistake. There is nary a wasted moment in the show, which features fine support from Christopher McCann as Gloucester, Chandler Williams as Edmund, Jacob Fishel as Edgar, and Timothy D. Stickney as Kent, although Jake Horowitz’s reduced Fool is a minor misstep. Perhaps what is most fascinating, and keeps us coming back for more, is that each of these Lears feels like a different play, not merely the same work with various changes and interpretations. It’s hard to believe, but I’m already looking forward to seeing what Lithgow and Sullivan have to say on the subject at the Delacorte this summer.