Thursday, May 15, 2014

Choking The Fool

The reviews were stellar, with all of them saying
how lucky Queens was, to have Titan Theatre in
their midst. I was lucky, too, to have been a part
of this remarkable production.
The gent who afforded me my New York City debut, in Taming of the Shrew, spoke to me over a year ago about working with his company on their planned production of King Lear.  He wanted me to play the Fool, and from that moment a year ago, I worried about attempting this role.  The Fool, you see, is one of those ambiguous parts in Shakespeare which is completely open to interpretation... as opposed to, say, Malvolio in Twelfth Night (which is on my bucket list, just putting it out there...);  if the actor playing Malvolio just recites the words correctly, half his work is done.  But Lear's Fool is not so obvious.  I did a bit of research on the history of the character (not too much, I didn't want to spook myself), and it's been played in wildly different ways. 
Lear's Fool is wide open to the actor's interpretation, making it both exciting and worrisome to rehearse. Even women have played it. This picture is from the production by the Renaissance Shakespeare Company ("the OTHER RSC"), with Kenneth Branagh as Edgar. I saw this production, and wept when the Fool died.  The role was played by Emma Thompson, here seen in androgynous whiteface.  Scholars have surmised for years that the fact that the Fool and Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia never appear onstage together must mean that they were originally played by the same actor. Other research reflects that the role of the Fool was written for, and first played by, Robert Armin, who replaced Will Kempe as the resident comic actor in Shakespeare's company.  By the time King Lear premiered, Armin was 37, entirely too old to play Cordelia.
I found at least two modern productions in which the Fool was a British Music Hall performer, to which the Fool's various songs lend themselves.  In more than one production, the Fool is ultimately murdered by Lear himself, in a fit of madness.  I'm not sure how the text supports that, but it's happened. 
Lloyd Mulvey, as Oswald, was responsible for my death.
Lloyd is also the resident photographer for Titan, and
most of the shots on this page are his. But we have no
pix of the strangling of the Fool, since Lloyd did it. Not
really the time for a selfie. The violence surrounding my
death was rehearsed at our daily fight call, of course,
where it was called Choking The Fool.
The double entendre is evident.

What has concerned directors of Lear over the years is the Fool's sudden disappearance, without explanation, in the middle of the play.  In his final speech, Lear himself clears up the mystery by explaining his fool has been hanged, but there is no mention of exactly how or why the hanging might have taken place, or by whom.  There is no other mention of his disappearance.  It was decided in our production that I would be strangled and dragged offstage.

Tristan Colton swiped all the reviews as the
sociopathic Edmund. His famous speech
("Thou, Nature, art my goddess...") has been
butchered by every young classical actor.
Lenny moved it to the top of the show, giving
it even more importance. Tristan knocked it
all the way to Mets Stadium.

But I was never really concerned with how the Fool's life ended, I was more worried about giving life to the guy in the first place.  For a full year, each and every time I mentioned to somebody, ANYbody, that I was to play the Fool in King Lear, that person's face lit up.  "A great role!" or "Perfect for you!" or the like.  Nice, right?  The expectations of the Fool were very high, and even after a year of thought, I didn't know what the hell I was going to do with this part.
Michael Selkirk as the blinded Gloucester, being led, unknowingly, by his son Edgar. I spent some time onstage with Brendan Marshall-Rashid as he played that convincing beggar, Poor Tom; his was an extremely physical and satisfying portrayal. And I say that even when he had his clothes ON. I played Gloucester a year ago for Hudson Warehouse (go here for that report), but this is the remarkable thing about Shakespeare: never once did I think of how I played the role, I was so engulfed in creating my own character of the Fool. And Michael's performance as Gloucester was deservedly congratulated.
Director extraordinaire Lenny Banovez assembled a truly remarkable ensemble to play this Shakespearean classic.  He began, of course, with Lear himself. The role is one of those which is so substantial, and so iconic, and so very important to the success of the individual production, that the part is always cast first, and in advance. 
Kevin Beebee, on the left, has used his business
skills to help Titan grow fast and well.

You really cannot go into pre-production hoping to find your King Lear at an audition (Hamlet is another of those roles; because the entire play really revolves around these characters, it is impossible to build an ensemble to effectively tell the story without first knowing who will be at the center of it all.  This doesn't seem to be true with all Shakespeares. I think you can pre-plan Romeo and Juliet without knowing exactly who will be playing those title characters).
The relationship between Lear and his Fool is an important one, and through our rehearsal period, I think Terry and I developed a strong working bond. Here we are in rehearsal, with Brad Makarowski as Kent and Brendan Marshall-Rashid as Edgar.
I did not personally know our Lear, Terry Layman, before we began, but I had seen his work as Friar Laurence in Titan's production of Romeo and Juliet. (We almost worked together in that production, but that's another story altogether.) 

Lear surrounded by his daughters, played by Laura Frye,
Susan Maris, and Leah Gabriel. Fine actresses all, and they
actually looked like a family!
I was to learn, very quickly, in rehearsal that Terry was to be an outstanding Lear, and it was a privilege to stand next to him as he charted Lear's descent into madness. Lenny surrounded Terry with an exceptional ensemble. As Kent, the moral center of the play, Lenny cast Brad Makarowski, a talented and annoyingly tall actor with whom I shared several scenes. 
With Brad as the disguised Kent. Some of my favorite
moments were in this scene, in which Kent is in the stocks,
and the Fool advises him, through speech and song, that only
a knave would desert the king.

My first scene in King Lear opened with a speech to Kent, admonishing him that, if he insisted on following King Lear, he was himself a fool. The Fool's coxcomb, or hat, would traditionally have included bells, bright colors, or other signifiers of the Jester. Our version, with present day dress, could not include such a thing, so my coxcomb was just my hat. Unfortunately, the entire speech consisted of the Fool insisting that Kent take his coxcomb, or Fool's Hat, since he is becoming a fool himself. I tried to make this clear in the speech, but without the visual of a jester's hat, I'm afraid the audience did not follow.  Even successful performances have a failure or two, and this was one of mine.
Lenny did a fabulous job editing this monster of a script, which in its full form runs 4 hours or so.  Our cut ran only 2, yet told the full story with depth and nuance.  And it's a good thing the edit was so drastic, as we had only three or so weeks to rehearse the show.  We began, as so often happens, with the table reading on the first night.

Actors call this The First Day of School: the Table Read, or First Read Through. For me, it was the first time I met most of the cast; it is always an exciting rehearsal. This picture reminds me, though, of a pet peeve of mine regarding such rehearsals.  It has nothing to do with King Lear, particularly, but since this is my blog, I get to vent, right? You'll get a better view of my peeve in the picture below:
The Table Read, the first time the cast reads the script outloud. I can't count how many of these I have attended. The company sits around a table, at places assigned by either the director or the stage manager. From our assigned seats, we try to make preliminary connections with our fellow actors through the text. Without fail, actors who have significant interaction with other actors are placed next to each other, as above, with Lear and his three daughters. At this rehearsal, you will always find the Macbeths sitting next to each other, and Romeo and Juliet as well. The theory is that the actor can more easily make a connection to the actor sitting next to him. This is a false theory, at least at this early, script-reading stage. The actors who have the most important text together should be sitting ACROSS the table from each other, rather than side-by-side. Then, it's possible to glance quickly from the script to the actor and back again, with merely a flick of the eye.  But when actors are seated next to each other, it's necessary to twist the body 90 degrees to the side in order to look at each other, making it very difficult to glance up from the script to try to initiate a personal connection. I am apparently the only person in all of show business to take note of this constant failure of the First Read's seating chart.
Titan's King Lear was the troupe's inaugural production at their new home, the Queens Theatre, located in Corona Park, very near the stadium where the Mets play.  The park is a lovely one, and it's peppered with huge structures which are both attractive and desolate. 
These structures were constructed in 1964 to symbolize a modern future. Perhaps, then, it's fitting that Titan Theatre has moved into the neighborhood, as Titan appears to have a glowing future at the Queens Theatre.

Corona Park was the home of the 1964 New York World's Fair, and the structures which survive from that event have largely been abandoned.  Plans are afoot for a major rejuvenation of these artifacts, but for now, they remain both intriguing and a bit creepy.
This is my favorite picture on this page. The giant globe was constructed for the World's Fair and remains its most constant reminder. And there's our director Lenny Banovez, and his skateboard. I wish I had a picture of his skanky shoes, which I wore in the show.

Our theatre is nestled in the midst of the aging
monuments, above.

Our show was produced in the Studio Theatre of the building which houses a larger main stage.  It is a true Black Box, built as such, and it was a delight and a relief to be performing there.  This King Lear was my seventh production in the two years I have had a New York Branch, and the only one to be performed in a space originally designed to be a theatre. 
The intimacy of the Studio Theatre allowed
the audience to watch Lear's madness take
hold, up close and personal. When he drew
his last breath, holding his dead daughter,
there were tears. There were tears
backstage too, as we said goodbye to this
experience. We all knew how special it was.

It was very nice to have actual dressing rooms, an actual Green Room, and the like, but really, if a show is good, it doesn't much matter where it is performed.  And Titan's King Lear was very, very good, featuring a central performance which was majestic, funny, and ultimately heartbreaking. I was proud to be a part of it all.