Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Review: LEAR at Vortex

photo copyright Kimberley Mead 2011

Y'all know me and my Shakespeare thing: love, love, love. And so it was this past Sunday, after a very long afternoon in the movie theater watching Bridesmaids (a comedy) and Hangover II (TOTAL tragedy) back-to-back, I still managed to rally myself to take in LEAR over at the Vortex. Weighing in at three hours, the play is a true commitment but one, I'm happy to say, that's worth it.

Rudy Ramirez-- my friend and former Dick Monologues stage-mate-- is at the directing helm here. I was a little bit surprised when I heard Rudy was taking on a play by Bill S-- Rudy's always got his hands in many projects, most often contemporary pieces like Footnotes for People Who Don't Speak Spanish and Promised Land: A Radical Queer Revival, both of which include much autobiography peppered with plenty of political commentary. Rudy being Rudy, he really puts a unique stamp on this production of LEAR.

Lots of directors (stage and film) have used the Bard as base and offered up a new twist on his his classic hits. Before we examine Rudy's signature, a quick look at other recentish re-shaped Shakespeare productions for the sake of differentiating. Most recently Robert Faires directed Love's Labour's Lost at Zilker, mashing up sixties surf scenes with an edited down version of the original play. That was fun and funny, a good way to draw in a younger contingent of budding Shakespeare fans while also offering all of us Bill worshippers in the crowd plenty of the original dialogue. A couple of summers ago there was a Zilker production of Romeo and Juliet with a Latino makeover (which I know, sounds like West Side Story, but it wasn't-- it was the original.) Aside from the fact that the principal roles went, for some reason, to lily white actors, that was another fun one.

But besides the fun interpretations going on, there are plenty of serious renderings of Shakespeare happening in Austin and two that immediately come to mind are Justin Scalise's Hamlet, in which he played the title role, and which was presented in a Boggy Creek Cemetery last summer. That might just be my all-time favorite Shakespeare production-- Justin blew me away. But then, wait, there was also Taming of the Shrew, Original Practices, directed by Beth Burns. In that version, Burns used an entirely male cast (hence the "original practices") with Ryan Crowder in the lead role of Katherina was... well damn he was out of control. (Read my gushing review here.) And there was nothing campy or drag queeny about his performance. Crowder simply WAS Katherina, and my suspension of disbelief was so thorough that I was hardly aware that I was suspending that disbelief.

Which brings us to LEAR. Rudy has chosen to do a totally different type of gender-bender with this production. Bear in mind the original play is called King Lear. King has been removed from the title here because the lead is played by Jennifer Underwood. (Suddenly I'm thinking of that old saying, "Balls said the queen! If I had them I'd be king!") Just as Crowder was utterly believable in the role of a woman, Underwood is wonderful here transforming a role intended originally to be masculine and seamlessly making it feminine. Once again, I was only aware of my disbelief suspension after the fact-- Underwood plays Lear so beautifully that she had me at, "Attend the lords of France and Burgundy, Gloucester." 

Lear is not the only character written for a male and now played by a female. Though Rudy does hang onto some basic elements-- as in the original Lear has three daughters here-- we get a wonderful fool played by Shannon Grounds (Austin Shakespeare fiends well-know her prowess onstage), an outstanding Kent played by Julianna Elizabeth Wright, and Edda (Edgar in the original) played by Amelia Turner who gets to both transform a male role into female, and then turn that character into a male as she goes underground.

There is very little to the set here-- expect the actors and dialogue to carry the play which sticks to the original text but gets a contemporary setting (sorry all you wench-costume fanatics). Three screens are used throughout as part of a modernizing device (I don't want to give it away) that Rudy uses to excellent effect.

As noted, LEAR is a serious commitment. Unlike Hangover II, which I think was supposed to be a comedy, LEAR was most intentionally written as a tragedy. Expect backstabbing (literal, figurative), wrenching misunderstandings, misplaced dedication, lots of blood and, of course, Lear's agonizing descent into madness.  Andrea Smith, Jennifer Coy and Suzanne Balling-- respectively in the roles of selfish sisters Goneril, Regan, and dedicated-but-misunderstood sister Cordelia-- all deliver strong performances and by the end my date was weeping over the latter's fate. (So yeah, this play has the power to MAKE GROWN MEN CRY.)

LEAR plays Thursdays - Sundays at 8 pm at the Vortex Theater through June 18, 2011.

A couple of quick notes about the venue-- over the past year or so the VORTEX has expanded and spruced up and is even more magnificent than ever before. There's a great indoor bar area-- the Monarch Bar-- with tables, and a wonderful deck out back. Plan on showing up early for a bite to eat (they have tasty sweet and savory snacks) and a beverage (wine, beer, and non-alcoholic options). Once you enter the theater-- and I'm being serious here-- scrutinize as you choose your seats and make sure the folks behind you have not brought in popcorn. Dude sitting behind us had a bag that crinkled so loud it was like being in a SurrroundSound earthquake movie and when we asked him to stop chomping (we were nice about it) he said he was "almost done" and kept crinkling and chomping. If I could've anticipated this I would've sat further away from him. 

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