Michael Pennington stars in this Theater for a New Audience production
King Lear with Michael PenningtonTheatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY) Map it $65
Many productions of Lear put emphasis on his rage (including, of course, the most recent Frank Langella version) but Michael Pennington's performance proves that Lear is simply a patriarch who has grown old. Anyone who has seen people grow old know that they revert to childhood frequently, in Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex one character slowly transforms this way to their death. Lear then doesn't release fury, he instead stands shocked, perplexed at how his daughters could betray him; at how he has put himself in this situation. The play is minimal, providing not much of a set, but works wonderfully to isolate the characters and strip the performance of everything but Shakespeare's words. As Lear progresses the audience can identify that this King Lear deals with the problems not specifically to a kingdom but of an upper class household (it could easily have seen been set in the Hamptons). These daughters are by-products of their father and Lear has seen the future he has built through his nurture. There is a lot here and the patient theatregoer will be rewarded by a minimalist play with more a focus on the words and nuances than volume.
Arin Arbus, the Associate Artistic Director of Theatre for a New Audience and Director of TFANA's latest production, King Lear, sat down with Flavorpill for an interview about the new production.
FP: King Lear is a very complex play. It’s a production that—if you don't keep up—it's easy to lose track of the characters progress.
AA: That’s one of the difficulties with it. In other Shakespeare plays, there’s generally two forming characters at most. Those relationships are kind of at the heart of it. But with this one, there are 11 main characters. They all have relationships; complex, real relationships to one another. All of their stories are essential and you have to balance those. It is a bigger task than with some other Shakespeare plays. The writing is so amazing; it’s hard to make a production that is as good as the text is.
FP: How do you take the text and not only transfer the plot and character growth, but still capture the poetry of the lines?
AA: What I do is I think about the play and the scenes and characters for a long time; I've thought about this play longer than any other play. I’ve done three workshops on this. I’ve had many arguments about it, in a good way, with the design team, with Jeffrey [Horowitz] the artistic director for TFANA, with actors and non-actors. So, it takes me a while to get to know it. That’s how I get to know it, by reading about it, by talking about it, and by working on it. But that takes a while.
FP: How long?
AA: Usually it takes a year, but Jeffrey and I have been talking about doing King Lear for five years. I was on the fence for a while and then Michael [Pennington] (who will be playing Lear) and I started talking about it in 2010. So for me, I have to understand who these people are slowly. Some of them come quick, some of them come slowly. Like Cordelia, and Lear, and some of the other characters. Probably all three of the daughters; those were pretty clear to me from early on. But then there were some characters like Edgar and Gloucester, even; those two were so mysterious to me for the longest, longest time. All of that happens before rehearsals begin. Then, in rehearsals, the company spends about a week sitting around a table going through every line. We just talk about every line, not from an acting point of view, but sort of as if we were examining the transcript from a trial. It’s like looking for evidence, textual evidence, that will support or form the foundation of people’s understandings of these characters.
FP: Jeffrey seems to have had a big hand in this…
AA: A big hand, yes. It was sort of my coincidence that I ended up working at Theatre for a New Audience, which is a modern classical theatre that has a great deal of Shakespeare. I started working here as an assistant director, and then as a costume bagger, then a file sorter, and secretary…and I was getting sort of interested in Shakespeare because we were doing a lot of the plays. But it wasn’t really until I started working on Othello that I realized, “Oh this is it, these characters…this is my life. This world that we live in.”
FP: Is there a Shakespeare play you wouldn't direct?
AA: There are definitely plays I would never want to direct. As You Like it—I could never, ever, ever direct that play.
FP: Wow. A lot of people like As You Like It. It’s a very big Shakespeare play. It’s a very female Shakespeare play.
AA: Yeah I don’t understand it at all. [She laughes]
FP: Have you seen it?
AA: Yeah. I don’t get it.
FP: Julie Taymor's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream came right before yours on the production calendar and it was a very high profile show. You’re doing a Shakespeare play after a Shakespeare play so the comparison is going to be there, of course, and you’re an up and coming director, going right after the first woman ever to win the Tony for best director.
AA: You’re intimidating me. [She laughs] Well, the play is where I focus my intimidation. That is enough to intimidate me. One of the great things about the core values of Theatre for a New Audience is that there’s no one way to do these plays. Jeffrey is interested in supporting artists who tackle things in totally different ways. So I mean, I love Julie’s work and have always loved it. Sure one could compare the two productions but Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear couldn’t be two more different plays. And, it’s sort of a moot point because we are tackling it in different ways. I can imagine that some people would maybe have expectations after seeing Midsummer in that sort of way, but I think that she’s doing something that I could never, ever, do. But I also believe what I’m trying to do is valid as well.
FP: You have done productions at a bigger scale before with opera in Chicago and Houston. How is opera different than plays for you?
AA: It’s different because the timing is already determined, more or less. The tempo is kind of set. The tempo of the thoughts is set. Whereas in a play, the actors have to invent the rhythm, invent the tempo, which is very different in a certain way. It’s a little easier in opera. The thing that opera has to its advantage is that there’s this incredibly powerful music pulsing through and that’s sort of the most important thing. If you have singers that can sing that’s just there and it’s huge. Even if you have great text, I mean we’ve all seen horrible Shakespeare, it’s not a given that the great language and great poetry is going to be great in front of an audience.
FP: There’s been so much talk about female directors lately, especially on Broadway. Pam MacKinnon, Leigh Silverman, Anna D. Shapiro, the list goes on and on. But you seem to be leading the female directors off-Broadway. How do you feel about that and do you want to be put in that category? Also, are you looking later to a Broadway career?
AA: Perhaps this is foolish of me but I’m not thinking about how other people think of me. The thing that I care about is doing work that’s important to me. And I also care about the environment that I do that work in. I am invested in the core values of TFANA. I have spent the last decade working there. In that time, the theatre has grown as well. And that has been thrilling. It's a rare thing for a director to find an institution which enables her to work on great material and supports her experiments and her failures as well as her successes. It's almost a miracle. And I know that it is only in that kind of environment that I can truly grow as a director. It’s a difficult thing to put on a play. I find it difficult and stressful and scary but it’s also kind of fun and rewarding and meaningful.
FP: You’re scheduled for A Doll’s House as your next play at Theatre for a New Audience. Why did you decide on such a classic play to be your first non-Shakespeare play?
AA: It’s a play that I’ve always been interested in and I’ve been talking to Juliet Rylance about finding something for us to do together. And Jeffrey got the rights to an adaptation done by Thorton Wilder that hasn’t been done in New York for I’d don’t know how long. It’s a smart, good adaptation. With plays written in other languages, you do run into problems with adaptations, but Jeffrey found this and I am very excited by it.