One of the truer moments in director Arin Arbus’ King Lear at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center comes at the close of Act 4, when the mad and wandering Lear meets the blinded Gloucester and his son Edgar on the cliffs above Dover. Although it is at this point in the play that Lear’s disordered state of mind is at its strangest, under Arbus’ direction, the scene encapsulates the production’s prevailing theme, namely the moral and physical wreckage of old age and its vulnerability to the ambitions of succeeding generations. As Michael Pennington’s unraveling Lear and Christopher McCann’s distraught Gloucester are forced together by the villainous scheming of their own children, they find fleeting solace in their many decades of shared history, while their resiliency and humor despite the storms life has sent them lead an amazed Edgar (Jacob Fishel) to both laughter and tears.
This finely pitched interlude is short lived, however, in Theater for a New Audience’s bare bones production. The Polonsky’s unadorned stage stands coldly in for both castle and heath, without even any sound design except for what is called for in the text. If Arbus grounds TFANA’s Lear on the strength of its cast, the power of Shakespeare’s text, and the audience’s familiarity with the latter, it is a gamble that results at times in either monotony or confusion and sometimes both. The above-mentioned scene is one notable example, when to enact Gloucester’s foiled attempt at jumping off the cliff (in fact, he falls only a short distance to a lower overhang) McCann simply lies on the ground where he stands. In a play where the natural elements of rain, wind and crashing seas echo and underscore the turmoil in Lear’s kingdom, the natural elements are absent. Here, on the wild cliffs of Dover, one of the more suspenseful moments of the play is left to our imagination and ultimately lost.
Equally, the acting doesn’t quite deliver on the production’s minimalist bet, but in this case at least, the casting gives some evidence for Arbus having an underlying vision for the production. Edgar, along with Cordelia, are the two children in the play whose filial piety is real and not feigned. The youthfulness of both actors (Fishel’s slight build and Lilly Englert’s adolescent features) underscores their innocence and sets them apart from their monstrous siblings, even when, in Edgar’s case, he is older than his brother Edmund, at whose hand Gloucester is undone. So too, Lear’s ever devoted Fool is a beardless youth as played by the baby-faced Jake Horowitz.
Opposite these children are fathers to whom old age has not been kind. Pennington’s Lear is so unpredictable in his moods and generally irascible that it is tempting to apply a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia to his blinking, head-shaking attempts to see straight in the moral disorder that engulfs him. Compared to Frank Langella’s robustly incensed Lear (at BAM earlier this season), Pennington, though the younger of the two actors, embodies a king who is certifiably elderly and probably ought to be committed to a home. Also a candidate for elder care, McCann’s Gloucester is a doddering ninny who never questions that respect should be paid to him on the basis of his years and position; he suffers all the more cruelly for his naiveté.
In the villains’ camp, Regan (Bianca Amato) and Goneril (Rachel Pickup) are chilling statues of froideur opposite Edmund’s almost joyful plotting (as played by Chandler Williams) but even with an army of soldiers present nearly throughout, the production seems strangely empty of a human presence at all, save for Pennington’s Lear and Fishel’s Edgar. The other characters seem to respond, knee-jerk fashion, to external cues rather than to any inner drive or psychology. It’s as if Arbus, like France’s army coming to restore the mad king and reunite him with Cordelia, is marching, blinders on, toward the play’s end. Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy is here a mostly passionless reading of the inevitable deteriorations of age and the power struggles they leave, also inevitably, in their wake.