This review of King Lear at The Secret Theatre was written by Christopher M. Struck and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Alberto Bonilla
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
The Secret Theatre is a custom built theatre and rehearsal rooms facility in the heart of Long Island City's artists' quarter. The place feels brand new and well-kept despite being around since 2007. It has a long history of performing Shakespeare's plays. Despite the nice aesthetics, the seating is a little close together and isn't all that soft after a few hours of sitting. However, it is very easy to see the production and there is no separation between the front row and the stage, which probably influenced the decision of the director to use stage knives instead of swords making for some interesting takes on the classic fight scenes.
King Lear has been regarded as one of Shakespeare's supreme achievements. Originally drafted in 1605/1606, it has been produced regularly throughout the centuries with some modifications. The play follows the descent of King Lear as his actions in response to his various daughters slowly precipitate the gradual losing of his mind. The happy kingdom, as quoted by Richard Mazda as the Earl of Gloucester, may have "seen the best of times" but domestic insurrection and internal conflict will follow King Lear's decision to disinherit his youngest and most precious daughter Cordelia (Meggy Hai Trang) for her unwillingness or inability to explain to her father the nature of the "pure love" she holds for him. Her older sisters, Goneril (Elizabeth A. Davis) and Regan (Melissa Macleod), heap praise upon their father only to undermine and plot against him later. With no inheritance, the Duke of Burgundy has no interest in marrying Cordelia, while the King Of France promises himself to her and views her as a sincere person who is praiseworthy. The King of France isn't the only one to call King Lear's actions into question. The "noble" Earl of Kent (Arthur Lazalde) also attempts to defend Cordelia only to find himself banished from the kingdom.
Goneril and Regan's disingenuous statements and subsequent betrayals of their father eventually drive King Lear to the brink of madness. Goneril, the King's eldest daughter, becomes frustrated with the King's entourage and publicly rebukes him. Oswald, her steward, blatantly shows him disrespect, which angers him greatly. One suspects Goneril might take her father's life if her entourage was ever larger than his. When the King appeals to Regan, his middle daughter, for help, she sides with her sister suggesting the King reduce the size of his personal forces to nothing. This, combined with Regan's mistreatment of the King's messenger results in him storming off into the woods during a terrible thunderstorm with no one by his side but his Fool (Jack Herholdt). King Lear rebukes the gods for turning his daughters against him. The Earl of Kent offers his help to Cordelia, who has arrived at Dover with an army from France intent on returning King Lear to power over his daughters, Goneril and Regan, who have overstepped their bounds. Fearful the elder daughters plan to assassinate the King, the Earl of Gloucester sends him to Dover to meet up with the French army and Cordelia.
Meanwhile, Edmund (Zachary Clark), the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son, first manipulates his father into turning against Edgar (Nick Chris), his brother, and then betrays his father to the Duke of Cornwall (Regan's husband). In the ensuing confrontation between the Duke of Cornwall and the Earl of Gloucester, the Duke is mortally wounded by his own servant who tries to prevent the complete blinding of Gloucester, who sets off on the road to Dover. Edmund, now Earl in his father's place, uses this opening to turn Goneril and Regan against each other and to further enhance his position and power. When the English capture Cordelia and King Lear during the defeat of the French, he plans to have both the King and Cordelia killed. Fortunately, Edgar discovers his blind father on the road to Dover, and when Oswald appears with instructions to kill Gloucester, Edgar saves his father's life. Also on Oswald is a letter from Goneril to Edmund asking him to kill her husband, the Duke of Albany.
The play wraps up where it began, in the King's court. Edgar arrives just after the capture of Lear and Cordelia. He appears in disguise and defeats Edmund in a duel to the death. During this same scene, Goneril poisons Regan and then, when confronted by the Duke of Albany with the letter Edgar found, she commits suicide. As Edmund dies, he confesses to having planned assassinations of Lear and Cordelia that same day. Albany and Edgar rush to the rescue but they are too late. The play ends with King Lear returning to the stage with the body of Cordelia (In some Shakespeare's editions, either the Duke of Albany or Edgar become King).
The casting was really well done for this play. Zachary Clark, who played Edmund, was a standout performer who brought much energy to the part. Arthur Lazalde as the Earl of Kent delivered some of the few comedic lines in this generally dark play. The extremely talented Jack Herholdt appeared as the Fool (the King's constant companion) and Elizabeth A. Davis was particularly impressive in the lead female role. On the other hand, there were a few times it was hard to understand what was being said. Shakespeare's lines can be mouthfuls. At times, it was a little difficult to understand Austin Pendleton as King Lear. While he delivered some excellent monologues, he stumbled over more than a few lines. However, he acted the mad King at the end of the play with flair.
In the Secret Theatre's production of King Lear, modern songs are used to accompany certain scenes, especially during Poor Tom's parts (Poor Tom was Edgar's disguise after being shunned by his father). Most of Poor Tom's original dialogue was a hodgepodge of popular lyrics from Shakespeare's heydey. In this production, the action is framed as a recollection occurring within the mind of King Lear, now a hospitalized, dying man. I think these adaptations, along with stage props and lighting, created a cool and eerie atmosphere that made the personal descent of the King into madness more pronounced.
Go see this Shakespearean Tragedy at The Secret Theatre! It is wonderfully done and offers one of the best examples of Tragedy you will ever see. King Lear runs almost every night (except Mondays and Tuesdays) between March 23rd and April 9th. Tickets can be reserved for $18.00 ($20.00 at the door) on their website at http://www.secrettheatre.com