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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Michael Pennington as King Lear

I just saw Michael Pennington as King Lear at the Theatre For A New Audience in Brooklyn, New York.

It was excellent!

If you are anywhere near New York, you should go see it!

Michael Pennington
all photos by Gerry Goodstein

The play runs through May 4. Here is the link to their box office:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share some of my thoughts about this production.

This is the second production in the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center which is a great space. I saw the theatre’s inaugural production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream there recently, and I look forward to see more Shakespeare there in the future.

It was fun to see some familiar faces in the cast. I recognized Rachel Pickup (Goneril) whom I had seen play Olivia in Twelfth Night last year at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. 

I recognized Jake Horowitz (Fool) who was great as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at TFANA, and Lily Englert (Cordelia) who was a very funny Hermia in the same production.

I recently saw Michael Pennington’s superb portrayal of John of Gaunt in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Richard II, starring David Tennant, and I couldn’t wait to see him as Lear.

Overall the cast was excellent, and the performances were solid. I don’t want to single anyone out, because they were all so good.

Rachel Pickup (Goneril) and Graham Winton (Albany), in rehearsal

I know the play rather well, and I don’t expect too many surprises in the performances. I just want Cordelia to be good, her sisters sinister, the Fool wise, and King Lear to lose everything. In that respect I was not disappointed.

Ms. Englert was fine as Cordelia and not only did she look truly related to Mr. Pennington, but she was truly convincing as this man’s daughter. She made both her initial defiance and her eventual tenderness towards him very moving. I expect to shed tears when she is reunited with him, and I did in fact cry.

Bianca Amato (Regan)

Bianca Amato and Rachel Pickup as Regan and Goneril were as sinister as I wanted, and I did enjoy the fact that they were so matter of fact about it. It was as if they have always been manipulative daughters and cruel sisters, and they have no intention of changing. 

Jake Horowitz (Fool)

I really enjoyed Jake Horowitz’s performance as Fool, and I thought the chemistry between him and King Lear was very good. I often watched how Mr. Pennington reacted to his Fool, and his pleasure at being teased, by the one and only person who can get away with it, was very genuine. Despite what his Fool says, no matter how critical, they seem to enjoy each other’s company.

Jacob Fishel (Edgar) and Chandler Williams (Edmund), in rehearsal

What can I say of Michael Pennington as King Lear? He is a master at performing Shakespeare, and he has such a command of the part that I can find no fault. He makes it seem so effortless, even when he is being torn to shreds by his evil daughters, or when he is caught in a terrible storm. His emotional range is remarkable, the control he has over his voice (when he is in command of himself, to when he is pitiful) is brilliant, and the connections he makes with all of the other actors is truly rare. 

There is a vulnerability to his performance that I didn't expect. It would seem that it is easy to be a bossy King Lear, and speak and act like royalty. I think the harder part is to be the King Lear who is falling apart, and make that pain truthful, make it feel like real emotion rather than just acting.

King Lear is probably my least favorite Shakespeare play because if it is done properly, it makes me feel hurt. There is no catharsis in this play. It has no closure, and leaves me feeling wounded.

Well, Mr. Pennington was excellent, and by the end of the play I felt far more weak than I did when it began. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but there it is.

with Lily Englert (Cordelia)

Arin Arbus, the director, has done an excellent job of making the play honest, and frightening. It doesn’t pull any punches, and the violence (such as Gloucester’s blinding) is as horrible as it should be. The play moves rather quickly, and I hardly noticed the time passing. The stage is simple, the effects (like the lightning and the thunder) are great, and by the end of the play, you feel that you have witnessed something rather special.

If I am not mistaken, this is the first time that Mr. Pennington has played King Lear. It is clear that he has prepared his whole career for this moment, and for that reason alone the play is worth seeing.



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