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Theatre in Review: King Lear (New York Classical Theatre)

This is the summer of revised Shakespeare. Classical Theatre of Harlem is currently presenting Seize the King, Will Power's contemporary revamp of Richard III. Over at the Delacorte, you can catch Merry Wives, Jocelyn Bioh's update of The Merry Wives of Windsor, set among West African immigrants in South Harlem. And New York Classical Theatre, the light-on-its-feet troupe that presents Shakespeare al fresco in several city parks, is offering King Lear -- with a happy ending.

Unlike the other offerings, this Lear has its roots deep in theatre history. Nahum Tate, poet laureate of Britain from 1692 to 1715, played script doctor to Shakespeare's masterwork, eliminating characters, revamping the plot, and adding, yes, a happy ending. What today may look like literary vandalism may have seemed rather more plausible at the time: There is evidence that King Lear was something of a flop initially; furthermore, in the late 17th century, when a certain classic restraint held sway on the English-speaking stage along with a preference for the unities of time, place, and action, King Lear must have seemed like a wild and wandering thing.

Tate, whose literary fortunes later declined, perhaps after becoming a target in Alexander Pope's literary satire The Dunciad, also prettied up Richard II into something called The Sicilian Usurper. And he was not alone: The actor-manager Colley Cibber monkeyed around with Richard III. And lest we lay all the blame on the post-Restoration theatre, it's worth noting that in the 19th and 20th centuries, many Yiddish theatre companies presented Shakespeare's plays in heavily adulterated editions.

Even in the heyday of Tate's adaptation, reviews were mixed. Samuel Johnson loved it -- but then he couldn't bear the idea of Cordelia's death. Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt were appalled, each suggesting that the new ending made a hash of everything that comes before. But from 1681 until 1838, Tate's The History of King Lear, an immediate success with audiences, was the standard, being performed by David Garrick, Edmund Kean, and John Phillip Kemble, among others. In the US, it hung on until 1875, when Edwin Booth reverted to performing the original text.

Stephen Burdman's production for New York Classical Theatre is a hybrid in the grand tradition since the actors mentioned above, to a greater or lesser degree, mixed and matched bits of Shakespeare and Tate. For example, Tate's version dispenses with the character of the Fool; Burdman has Cordelia disguise herself as the Fool to keep tabs on Lear, although, as per Tate, she becomes romantically linked to Edgar, the wronged son of the Duke of Gloucester. Nevertheless, much of the production is a fast-moving, tightly edited Lear, until the wrap-up, in which the monarchy is restored, lovers are reunited, villains are vanquished, and virtue is generally triumphant.

As is usually the case with this company's productions, the cast combines seasoned pros with well-trained up-and-comers to good effect. Prominent in the former category is John Michalski as Lear, an august monarch whose rising anger over his thwarted succession plan pushes him to the edge of madness. Unlike many recent Lears, he is neither suffering from narcissistic personality disorder nor a pre-Alzheimer's case study -- but his tragic error lands him in circumstances for which he has no coping mechanism. Also fine is Nick Salamone's Gloucester, a model gentleman whose polished manner and aristocratic bearing give way to a terrible anguish in the face of betrayal and mutilation.

Other striking turns are offered by Cedric Lamar as Kent, equally dedicated and wily in his service to Lear; Jasminn Johnson's bellicose, self-righteous Goneril, treating her father like a recalcitrant child; Aryana Sedarati's coarse-grained Regan, sexually stimulated by power; Grant Chapman's supercilious, scheming Oswald; and Linden Tailor's stalwart, touching Edgar. Connie Castanzo's double act as Cordelia and the Fool has its strong points, including her vaudevillian approach to the latter character, but her voice is less than powerful, and her diction could use improvement. (That most of the cast members, performing outdoors, remain intelligible despite noise from traffic, airplanes, boom boxes, and other distractions is a testament to their training and technical skills.)

Sabrinna Fabi's traditional-looking costumes provide defining looks for each character; there is no lighting per se, but during the later scenes, after sunset has begun, the discreet, but clever, use of flashlights provides key light for the principals.

I won't go into the details of the ending, except to note that this is King Lear like you've never seen it before. It has the effect of diluting what may be Shakespeare's greatest work; a kind of premodern glimpse into an abyss of evil becomes a furious melodrama that ends surprisingly, unconvincingly well. Then again, it would be difficult, if not impossible to present an unadulterated Lear under these circumstances; the play's bleak conclusions about humanity's savagery requires the intimacy of the playhouse. But for a post-pandemic return to the theatre, it probably strikes the right note. Full tragedy can wait a few more months, when audiences feel less battered by recent events. In any case, the cast's enthusiasm and evident of love of language make the evening a positive pleasure.

I caught King Lear in Central Park, but the production runs through August 8 at Brooklyn Commons at Metrotech, Carl Schurz Park, and the Battery. -- David Barbour

(12 July 2021)

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