Leaden Lear, Golden Moments

Let's begin with the bottom line: By any measure, The Shakespeare Project, the New Theatre's summer repertory of King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream, is an undeniable success. These masterworks, played by a plucky acting ensemble of 13, are delivered in visually striking stagings by artistic director Rafael De Acha and backed by a superior design staff. The overall result ranges from competent to salutary, depending on whether you view theater as product or process. Considered as theatrical product, these two shows have considerable merit, though Shakespearean purists may have some reservations. But viewed as process, the New Theatre's risk taking gamble on the classics is one of the most important theatrical endeavors in the state.

The New takes on the biggest challenge first: King Lear, an Everest of a play with such emotional and poetic power that even veteran Shakespeareans view it with awe and sometimes dread. Set long ago in the misty past of British legend, Lear is a bleak, heart wrenching fairy tale for grown-ups. The vain, imperious king decides to divide his kingdom equally among his three daughters, planning a happy retirement as ruler emeritus. His hypocritical older daughters, Goneril and Regan, feed him the flattery he desires, but Cordelia, who truly loves him, refuses to do so. In a rage, he banishes her and halves his realm for older sisters. Realizing too late that he has been duped by his own vanity, Lear flees in a rage out onto the stormy heath, where he begins to go mad. All the while, war looms, as Cordelia and her new husband, the King of France, ready an army to reclaim the throne for her father. The plot of King Lear can't convey its essential power, which lies in its devastating critique of human nature. These characters are of mythical stature, but their emotions and relationships are all too familiar: scheming sisters, rival brothers, the vanity and denial of the elderly, the refusal of the younger generation to care for an aging parent, the heartbreak of reconciliations come too late.

The New Theatre production is given a formal, stark staging defined by Jesse Dreikosen's simple but ominous set design. The all-white space is bare -- nowhere to sit, let alone hide -- dominated by three rusting metal doors that suggest a prison or an insane asylum. As M. Anthony Reimer's ominous ambient music beats a slow muffled rhythm, the play unfolds as a series of intense encounters between the principal characters; all of the usual Shakespearean fanfare -- courtiers, banners, spear carriers -- has been pared away. Estela Vrancovich's striking costumes range from woolly medieval doublets for the men to slinky modern style gowns for the women, while lighting designer Travis Neff's bounces light off the white surfaces on to the actors to unsettling, spooky effect. All of this supports De Acha's vision of a stark, restrained Lear that seethes rather than explodes. There are visually striking moments - a pair of bloody handprints on a white wall is especially memorable -- but the pace is ponderous and some of story is hard to follow. There happens to be a pitched battle in this story but you wouldn't know it from this production. As Lear, James S. Randolph, Jr. brings the vocal power and stage presence he showed last season as Othello, but this time out, he fails to deliver much heat or heart. Randolph finds Lear's early petulance and blockheadedness, but his anguish and heartbreak seem unconvincing -- the famous soliloquy "Reason not the need" is delivered in a hurried, choppy pace. Carlos Orizondo brings spark to the villain Edmund, and Odell Rivas endows Edgar, a fellow wanderer, as a soft, soulful presence. But the three sisters are delivered rather archly, and Lear's Fool is a complete misfire, from concept to costuming.

The New crew seems more comfortable with Shakespearean comedy, and much about A Midsummer Night's Dream, a comedy of sex, magic, poetry, and mystery, seems more assured. This tale of four quarreling lovers who flee into the woods only to be enchanted by the fairies who dwell there is played with an East Indian motif throughout. The acting space is swathed in soft white fabrics instead of hard walls, Reimer contributes a splendid raga based score from Reimer, and Vrancovich again turns in smashing costumes. The performances range in effectiveness, the best coming from Tara Vodihn as the geeky lover Helena and Ricky J. Martinez and Annemaria Rajala as Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, played as graceful, dancing dervishes. Once again, the visuals are arresting as de Acha manages to sustain what many productions of this play do not -- the floating sense of a waking dream, though the production is not as funny as one might expect. Another drawback is some ill advised cuts, especially the elimination of Hippolyta, the intended bride of Theseus whose (presumably) happy prenuptials are upended by the lovers' dispute. This dubious deletion results in the evisceration of several scenes, but it's safe to say that most audiences won't even notice.

Audiences may, however, notice that this young company, by and large, has noticeably improved its craft since last season, progress that only comes with experience. Acting Shakespeare calls for actors with tremendous vocal, physical, textual, and emotional skills. Each of the New crew clearly offers some of these, but few offer all. While several performances in these shows take off, it takes an entire cast to get these plays airborne. But that's where the idea of process comes in. For the actor, every Shakespearean role enhances the next one, every onstage relationship helps support the ones that follow. By playing their Shakespeare in rep, De Acha and the New aren't thinking short term -- they are grooming an on-going acting company over a period of years. That's why this year's Shakespeare Project has more texture than last season and why a number of New actors have clearly undergone remarkable artistic growth. The New Theatre's commitment to repertory helps raise the bar for the entire South Florida community.

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