More Than Standup Leaden Lear, Golden Moments

New Theatre’s Bard double bill shows the best is yet to come

Let’s begin with the bottom line: By any measure, The Shakespeare Project, the New Theatre’s summer repertory of King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is an undeniable success. These masterworks, played by a plucky acting ensemble of thirteen, are delivered in visually striking stagings by artistic director Rafael de Acha and backed by a superior design staff. The overall result ranges from competent to salutary, depending on whether you view theater as product or process. Considered as theatrical product, these two shows have considerable merit, though Shakespearean purists may have some reservations. But viewed as process, the New Theatre’s gamble on the classics is one of the most important theatrical endeavors in the state.

The New takes on the biggest challenge first: King Lear, an Everest of a play with such emotional and poetic power that even veteran Shakespeareans view it with awe and sometimes dread. Set long ago in the misty past of British legend, Lear is a bleak, heart-wrenching fairy tale for grownups. The vain, imperious king decides to divide his kingdom equally among his three daughters, planning a happy retirement as ruler emeritus. His hypocritical older daughters, Goneril and Regan, feed him the flattery he desires, but Cordelia, who truly loves him, refuses to do so. In a rage, he banishes her and halves his realm for the older sisters. But soon they demand that his retinue of knights be trimmed back as a cost-saving measure, then that all of them go. Realizing too late that he has been duped by his own vanity, Lear flees in a rage out onto the stormy heath, where he begins to go mad. Meanwhile Lear’s trusted adviser, the Earl of Gloucester, is tricked by his bastard son Edmund into believing that his legitimate son, Edgar, is planning a patricidal plot. Edgar, though innocent, flees onto the heath and disguises himself as a homeless beggar. All the while war looms, as Cordelia and her new husband, the King of France, ready an army to reclaim the throne for her father. The plot of King Lear can’t convey its essential power, which lies in its devastating critique of human nature. These characters are of mythical stature, but their emotions and relationships are all too familiar: scheming sisters, rival brothers, the vanity and denial of the elderly, the refusal of the younger generation to care for an aging parent, the heartbreak of reconciliations come too late.

It's Midsummer in India at the New Theatre
It's Midsummer in India at the New Theatre

Details

The Shakespeare Project: King Lear & A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By William Shakespeare, Directed by Rafael de Acha.

Presented through August 22 by the New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909.

Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Live!

Written by T.G. Cooper, directed by Jerry Maple, Jr. With Latrice Bruno, Yvone Christiana, Curtis Allen, and Ben Collier. Through July 11 at the M Ensemble Actors Studio, 12320 W Dixie Hwy, North Miami; 305-895-8955.

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This production is given a formal, stark staging defined by Jesse Dreikosen’s simple but ominous set design. The all-white space is bare — nowhere to sit, let alone hide — dominated by three rusting metal doors that suggest a prison or an insane asylum. While M. Anthony Reimer’s ominous ambient music beats a slow, muffled rhythm, the play unfolds as a series of intense encounters between the principal characters; all of the usual Shakespearean fanfare — courtiers, banners, spear carriers — has been pared away. Estela Vrancovich’s striking costumes range from woolly medieval doublets for the men to slinky modern gowns for the women, while lighting designer Travis Neff bounces light off the white surfaces onto the actors for an unsettling, spooky effect. All of this supports de Acha’s vision of a stark, restrained Lear that seethes rather than explodes. There are visually striking moments — a pair of bloody handprints on a white wall is especially memorable — but the pace is ponderous and some of the story is hard to follow. There happens to be a pitched battle in this story, but you
wouldn’t know it from this production. As Lear, James S. Randolph, Jr., brings the vocal power and stage presence he showed last season as Othello, but this time out, he fails to deliver much heat or heart. Randolph finds Lear’s early petulance and blockheadedness, but his anguish and heartbreak seem unconvincing — the famous soliloquy “Reason not the need” is delivered in a hurried, choppy pace. Carlos Orizondo brings spark to the villain Edmund, and Odell Rivas endows Edgar with a soft, soulful presence. But the three sisters are delivered rather archly, and Lear’s Fool is a complete misfire, from concept to costuming.

The New crew seems more comfortable with Shakespearean comedy, and much about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a comedy of sex, magic, poetry, and mystery, seems more assured. This tale of four quarreling lovers who flee into the woods only to be enchanted by the fairies who dwell there is played with an East Indian motif throughout. The acting space is swathed in soft white fabrics instead of hard walls, Reimer contributes a splendid raga-based score, and Vrancovich again turns in smashing costumes. The performances range in effectiveness, the best coming from Tara Vodihn as the geeky lover Helena and Ricky J. Martinez and Annemaria Rajala as Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, played as graceful, dancing dervishes. Once again the visuals are arresting, as de Acha manages to sustain what many productions of this play do not — the floating sense of a waking dream, though the production is not as funny as one might expect. Another drawback is some ill-advised cuts, especially the elimination of Hippolyta, the intended bride of Theseus, whose (presumably) happy nuptials are upended by the lovers’ dispute. This dubious deletion results in the evisceration of several scenes, but it’s safe to say that most audiences won’t even notice.

Audiences may, however, notice that this young company has noticeably improved its craft since last season, progress that only comes with experience. Shakespeare calls for actors with tremendous vocal, physical, textual, and emotional skills. Each member of the New crew clearly offers some of these, but few offer all. While several performances in these shows take off, it takes an entire cast to get these plays airborne. That’s where the idea of process comes in. For the actor, every Shakespearean role enhances the next one. By playing their Shakespeare in rep, de Acha and the New aren’t thinking short-term — they are grooming an ongoing acting company over a period of years. That’s why this year’s Shakespeare ProjectÚhas more texture than last season and why a number of New actors have clearly undergone remarkable artistic growth. The New Theatre’s commitment to repertory helps raise the bar for the entire South Florida community.

More Than Standup
Moms Mabley wasn’t just a string of jokes

In her biography in the playbill for Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Live!, the cantankerous, randy Moms is described as a “star of Black Vaudeville and nightclubs for almost half a century.” The article goes on to list the talent she worked with and discovered. Being a fan of the arts but unfamiliar with Moms, one can’t help but be intrigued by her career and want to learn more about her life.

Unfortunately the play is merely a revue of her routines. We learn very little about the person except for whatever moderate, unknown truths manifest in her jokes that take the form of anecdotes. It’s an odd thing to have a character be more interesting than the content, but that is the case here.

Structurally this would be workable if the jokes were funny. While there are some laughs as she sings and interacts with the audience in the small black-box theater, much of the humor consists of her obsession with young men and how spry she remains at her age. This leads to a number of double-entendres and a lot of sexual innuendo, a type of joke that can become old very quickly.

It’s hard for even the best comedians to come up with fifteen minutes of solid material, let alone an hour and a half. Writer T.G. Cooper has clearly studied Moms’ work and tried to condense it into an entertaining play. If he had put as much effort into studying and remembering the person and her legacy as he did her comedy, he’d have something special. As is, this is a tired, redundant comedy routine that underwhelms.

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