Thursday, May 22, 2014

Fool's Lear


Fool’s Lear
by Randy Neale
produced by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
directed by directed by Grant Neale
with Grant Neale and Craig Smith

Randy Neale’s play Fool’s Lear is a riff on King Lear. It shows us the king and his fool when they’re not on stage, in a dynamic dyad relationship. It’s a clever conceit, and quite well executed by The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.

Neale has assimilated lines from Shakespeare (Lear’s great first speech), lines that sound like Shakespeare (“What brings my king to this barren and dangerous place?”) and a colloquial idiom (“They love their Daddy bunches and bunches.”). He even borrows from Julius Caesar for a moment. He manages to suggest Shakespeare without ever sounding pretentious.

Grant Neale’s direction keeps everything moving and finely wrought. He keeps his two actors in a moment of Shakespearean wonder throughout the piece. His work as an actor is no less accomplished. He plays the Fool with a stammer, making him smart and disingenuous. He’s committed to his choices in every moment. He has an acrobatic skill that animates the stage picture and gives scenes delightful vitality.

Craig Smith plays Lear – Lear as a fallen tragic figure. His work has substance and subtlety. The problem is that he lacks grand status in the beginning of the play, so he hasn’t far to fall to become a doddering fool.  This weakens the play’s structure. No Shakespearean character falls from such a high place, but Smith mutes the tragedy.

There are other characters flitting briefly in the play, from King Lear as well. They’re represented by clever contrivances, the Fool holding objects or the suggestions of a costume in front of him.

The stage is largely bare. Its main set piece is a versatile chest, suitable for storing and hiding. The play’s most stunning image is Lear dragging the fool behind him on that chest.

But neither Neale’s directorial skill, nor his acrobatics, nor even Randy’s gift for words can change the fact that passages of the script are boring. Cleverness and acrobatics are no substitute for action in a two-hour play. The play claims its action by reflecting that of Shakespeare, but it doesn’t follow Shakespeare on a level granular enough for King Lear’s action to support it. Moreover, an at least passing familiarity with the Shakespeare is necessary for comprehension.

The Phoenix’ production, then, is only a qualified success. It certainly exhibits the company’s boldness in choosing material that is, whatever else, challenging.