A Radio-Ready Lear in Fort Greene

03/31/2014 3:11 PM |

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.

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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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