What a beautiful night in the park I had last week. Thanks to a dear friend who hooked me up with tickets, I took my dad to see his very first Shakespeare in the Park! I tried to see Much Ado About Nothing last month, and the performance was unfortunately canceled due to those insane hurricane rains. Thankfully, we had better luck with King Lear, and the weather could not have been more ideal for an evening of outdoor theatre.
King Lear is a striking production (click here for a montage), although I wasn’t fully engaged the whole time. The reviews have been very mixed, and I can see where they’re coming from. I’m giving the show a solid “good” (I should note – my dad thought it was excellent). While the play wavered and lost my rapt attention in spots, for the most part, I was hooked in with the action, which drove ever forward during the three-hour tragedy. I felt Act II especially found its stride.
The cast is led by the incomparable John Lithgow whose Lear is adamant and stubborn and sad. Witnessing him fall into madness leaves us full of pity despite the arrogance that blinds him in the first scene of the play (Lithgow kept a wonderful blog throughout the rehearsal process for the New York Times. I encourage you to check it out if you’re interested in reading more about the behind-the-scenes work). The Fool, played excellently by Stephen Boyer, brings humor and wit to all of his scenes. Another acting highlight, as always, is Jay O. Sanders as Kent. Sanders is a constant favorite of mine in the park. I have had the opportunity to see him in Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His performances are always vibrant, full, and clear in his choices, no matter the role size. Sheffer Stevens as Edmund is also strong; I very much enjoyed his work in Act I as he connives against Gloucester and Edgar.
A few of the performances fell flat for me, perhaps only compared to the more brazen Lithgow. Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht (as Goneril and Regan, respectively) – and I’m a big fan of both – didn’t stir me as much as I’d hoped. Whether this was a directing or acting choice I don’t know, but their cold and calculating deliveries left me wanting more. What’s bubbling beneath the surface? I wanted more real connection between the characters, no matter the quality of the relationship. Perhaps their distant nature further adds to what pushes Lear over the edge, but I craved something deeper. For example, I found the relationship that developed between Lear and his fool to be very touching. It is clear that despite their jokes, they deeply care for each other, and as Lear veers toward madness, you can see him reaching out to his fool in a desperate hope to stay grounded.
There is an ominous percussion underlying most of the action, which sets the looming mood in addition to creating the booming thunder of that infamous storm. One of the best aspects of the play is how extremely clear the language is. We heard every word thanks to excellent diction and a clear understanding from all of the actors as to what they were saying. So while occasionally stagnant, it’s certainly a worthy production worthy of your time.
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Delacorte Theatre, Closing August 17th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Boyer, Jay O. Sanders, John Lithgow, and Chukwudi Iwuji
It’s an odd thing. Sometimes it looks like everything’s been done just right: a talented cast, creative director, nice set, beautiful park, some laughs. And yet I walked away from Love’s Labour‘s Lost feeling unaffected. I sat there wishing I was laughing as hard as the people around me, but instead I felt like a bystander, observing from the outside of the Delacorte.
The very simple plot (I’m serious, there’s nothing to it) follows three men and their king who all take an oath to give up life’s pleasures and withdraw from society for three years in order to dedicate their time to their studies. In this contemporary adaptation, these men make this promise at their five-year college reunion, and in addition to rejecting women, they give up beer, bongs, porn, the list goes on. Of course, then four women from their pasts arrive, and we know this oath isn’t going to last too long, thereby making us doubt the weight of their oaths made later to love and stay committed to these women.
That’s it. That’s the plot. The women disappear for like, half of the show. There are random other characters who pop up for a few minutes here and there purely for comic relief.
So what left me feeling so untouched you ask? I’m honestly still in the process of figuring out a concrete answer. This is the second of two Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer, and it is very much a modern adaptation. It’s been turned into a musical, with a new score and adapted book by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers. Purists, be warned: the original Shakespeare text has been left in the dust. When it does crop up (rarely), it is brief before the songs take over again or more contemporary exchanges take its place.
I don’t mind modern versions of Shakespeare plays; in fact, I encourage them and love to see new approaches. But I did have a hard time with how little original text was used. I kept wondering why they even bothered to keep it. As a result, the jokes felt thin to me. They were easy laughs because it’s funny to juxtapose Shakespeare against a profanity or colloquial phrase. He said the f-word! Such a novelty! But why not only have a couple moments like that and then work to find what’s funny in the original material? Why are extravagant, flamboyant costumes necessary to get laughs? Shakespeare gives us all that we need. I don’t know, maybe I am a purist, but I think if you’re going to change the play to that degree then leave it behind entirely, instead of just referencing it when it’s convenient.
Some will argue that this production makes Shakespeare relatable for a modern audience, but I don’t think all of the hoopla is necessary. People continue to attend Shakespeare in the Park, not only because it’s free, but because Shakespeare remains relatable and entertaining even today. As I exited the park, I found myself thinking about Joss Whedon’s recent film, Much Ado About Nothing. This was a fully contemporary approach to Shakespeare, but the text remains, the comedy reads, and an audience packed with Avengers, Buffy, and Firefly fans connected to it and found themselves enjoying (and understanding) a Shakespeare play thanks to this medium.
This production left me thinking: are any of these choices justified? Most of the “bits” felt random because they knew they would get laughs. The songs make up the majority of the play, but they felt put on and not fully earned by these characters. I like this composer; I’m a big fan of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the same creative team). But except for “Love’s a Gun” (sung by the always-amazing Rebecca Naomi Jones) and a couple of other fun numbers, the music didn’t add to my experience.
Please don’t get me wrong; this is a wonderfully talented cast including Daniel Breaker, Colin Donnell, Jeff Hiller, and Rachel Dratch, not to mention director Alex Timbers whom we all know I love (see my Here Lies Love review). But this comedy felt mapped out. There are some genuinely funny and surprising moments. I just wish the rest of it had been as genuine.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Written by William Shakespeare, Song by Michael Friedman, Book Adapted and Directed by Alex Timbers
Delacorte Theater, Shakespeare in the Park 2013
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Bryce Pinkham, Colin Donnell, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe