The stage is usually empty except maybe for a small table, or a long bench; the scenery is nil, save for a sheet of what looks like rusted metal—like a chunk of the nearby Barclays Center exterior hung like a tapestry. Which is all fine: anything else would qualify as a distraction from this masterful production of King Lear‘s highlight: the spartanly costumed actors’ voices. Director Arin Arbus, the city’s leading Shakespeare adapter, knows how to distill these plays to their essence; here, she highlights the poetry with a colorful variety of vocal timbres, as clear as orchestral notes, coming together like an a cappella symphony, led by the robust vocalizations of Michael Pennington in the title role. This is a Lear (through May 4)—and I mean this as a compliment—that would lose nothing if you experienced it over the radio. Gloucester could enjoy it with or without his vile jellies.
That’s in contrast to Brooklyn’s most recent production, at BAM, starring Frank Langella, whose words were often lost in its lead’s growls and a production’s special effects. (It closed in February.) That’s not to say this one isn’t overwrought at times, too: some shouting, some claps of thunder, some scurrying atonal music (from a small live orchestra), as though Arbus is trying to live up to Theatre for a New Audience’s grand, costly new home in Fort Greene. But at root it’s most impressive for Pennington’s coherent psychological portrait. His Lear is a sympathetic old man who makes a mistake and quickly realizes it. This is tragedy—he’s truly a man more sinned against than sinning, not so unreasonable but for his original sin.
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