King Lear at the Secret Theatre

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!

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Alberto Bonilla
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, New York 11101
Reviewed 3/25/17

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.

King Lear at the Secret Theatre

King Lear at the Secret Theatre

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 

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'Night Mother at Studio Theater

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'Night Mother'
Written by Marsha Norman
Directed by David Dubin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
Reviewed 3/5/17

'Night Mother' was a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that found moderate success on Broadway receiving four Tony Award nominations and running for nearly a year. Studio Theatre Long Island, known for edgy and witty entertainment about hot topics along with good family fun (Jungle Bookcoming soon), put on an emotionally gripping rendition of this tense drama. Studio Theatre is a charming venue in Lindenhurst, Long Island that serves coffee, sweets, and fruit on Sundays for patrons and has delightfully intimate seating with great views of the stage. The actresses, Sheila Sheffield as Thelma and Maryellen Molfetta as Jessie, did a great job of speaking fluidly and clearly which made both the circumstances of the play and the main themes easy to follow.

The play revolves around the suicide of the daughter, Jessie. At the outset of the play, she searches for her dad's old gun and when her mother questions her, Jessie subtly states that "the gun is meant for me." She then clarifies for her concerned mother, Thelma, and the audience that she intends this to be their last night together. I came to the play with only the knowledge that 'Night Mother' had won a Pulitzer, but my personal experience with many of the darker themes addressed during the play kept me intensely interested in how events would unfold.

The strengths of this play appear in both the script and the presentation of the actresses. The two main players handled themselves well and delivered impassioned appeals that helped bring life to a vivid script. The themes were incredibly reflective of the dark frame of mind that can lead people to thoughts of taking their own life. Thelma, the mother, attempts to keep her daughter alive through a desperate reconciliation. Within this comes the slow reveal that some secrets and selfishness with her daughter's time have poisoned their relationship. And yet, Jessie later flatly states her mother should "be more selfish."

Despite a few clean jokes and an acute understanding of the mindset in which victims of depression can find themselves in, there were a few audience members that nodded off early and failed to return to the matter at hand. The play doesn't deliver any truly great overtures of love or warmth and tender affection which serve to make the audience keenly aware of the mother and daughter's struggles. The actresses themselves were often focused on each other and were rarely called to engage the audience. Although they used the stage well, the plot ran in a linear fashion which I think would make it hard for audience members without personal experience from believing deeply in the morality or profundity of Jessie's intended suicide.

I would recommend this play to people who have prior personal experience with or are concerned about someone in their family going through a traumatic life struggle. Additionally, for those curious about depression and interested in the potential warning signs of a person drifting toward a potential depressive episode, this is a worthwhile study of human behavior. However, this is not an example of what you should do in the case that you or someone you know is in this position. The lack of arc to the plot makes it feel like a project written for the sole purpose of shedding light on a serious topic that may have, at one point, been taboo. Because of this, the play suffered from an artistic standpoint. Despite solid performances from the actresses and a script that showcases an understanding and awareness of mental health, 'Night Mother' failed to impress upon me more than a vague emotional response due mainly to the inevitability of Jessie's plans. I felt like I had understood rather than had been wrenched emotionally.

"Night Mother' plays at Studio Theatre Long Island through March 19, 2017.  Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased at  www.studiotheatreli.com. For more, call 631-226-8400.

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