THE FOOL'S LEAR Runs 5/5-25 at Phoenix Theatre

THE FOOL'S LEAR Runs 5/5-25 at Phoenix Theatre

King Lear's fate is sealed in Shakespeare's play: to be tragically reunited with the one daughter he loves. But what would be the fate of his faithful Fool? That question lies at the heart of "The Fool's Lear," a new play by Randy Neale, which will have its New York premiere May 5 to 25 as a featured production of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's Tenth Anniversary Spring Rep season at The Wild Project 195 E. 3rd Street (at Ave. B). This new, funny, poignant comedic drama follows the journey of the Fool and his King as they ply a path along side Shakespeare's great tragedy, exploring hilarious and harrowing byways between its scenes. Grant Neale directs and plays The Fool and Craig Smith plays The King in a play which South Carolina critics called a delight and a must-see comic drama.

The story line follows Shakespeare's fairly closely, but from the Fool's point of view. It's as if we eavesdropped on Lear and his Fool, separate from the Heath Scene, in their private moments. From this vantage point we witness the betrayal of Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan and the fidelity of Cordelia, whose love was better unsaid. These daughters plus Kent, Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise), a passing knight and many other characters, both major and minor, are animated as puppets by The Fool, who whips them together from a sash here, a pole there, and other materials from all around the set. Critics have commended the play for its profound treatment of ageless issues, its compellingly fluent use of language, its clever sight gags and the astounding physicality of Grant Neale as The Fool.

The play was originally written by Randy Neale, a playwright now living in South Carolina, for himself and his brother, Grant Neale, who had been an actor in the now-legendary Jean Cocteau Rep, New York's long-running classical rep theater that presented classics in the East Village's Bouwerie Lane Theatre. The piece toured North Carolina, South Carolina, and Maryland in the summer of 2011. Charleston (SC) City Paper (Michael Smallwood) wrote that "King Lear and his fool, respectively, fresh from the pages of the notable play by the Bard [are] brought to wonderful life before our eyes. The play follows them as they contemplate life, death, love, madness, and family, all while navigating the infamous events of their last days. Randy Neale (who wrote the script) brings these two characters to perhaps greater levels of realism than his predecessor did, imbuing them with a vulnerability and compassion that they lack in the other story."

Charleston Today (Carol Furtwangler) wrote, "The moments of drama are no less expertly handled, the scenes of Lear's descent into madness more searing in contrast, or the fatal flaw in the character of the great man bringing about his own destruction and death more true to Shakespeare's vision. Trust me: You have never seen anything like this, and you never will again." Raleigh, NC's Triangle Arts & Entertainment (Robert W. McDowell) praised the piece's "bellylaughs and onstage pyrotechnics" writing, "This brilliant retelling of the tragedy of King Lear and his three daughters deserves an SRO audience."

Playwright Randy Neale, describing his play, writes "It is a story of fathers and children, aging and death, and the folly of all those who think they rule their own lives. It is about the end of power and the end of life as lived by a clown, whether that clown is a fool or a king."

In its 2011 three-state tour, the King was played by the playwright and his brother, Grant Neale, played the Fool. In this NY premiere, Grant Neale directs and returns as the Fool. King Lear is played by Craig Smith, a "downtown theater legend (playgoer.com) who is artistic director of Phoenix Theatre Ensemble.

Randy Neale (playwright) has authored dozens of plays since beginning his career as a writer for hire in 1971. Early New York productions of "Calliope," "Fool's Passage," "How Long Can They Last" and "McManus the King" foreshadowed his infrequent obsession with royalty and fools. In recent years, he has been acting and directing with PURE Theatre in Charleston, SC. He teaches acting, film making, and creative writing at Charleston Collegiate School, where he is the Director of Fine Arts. His newest play, "A Place for Natty Bumppo," will be produced there his coming season. (www.randyneale.net)

Craig Smith was a founding member of New York's prestigious Jean Cocteau Repertory where he made his artistic home for more than three decades and took on such roles as Hamlet, Romeo, Woyzeck, Segismundo ("Life is a Dream"), Mr. Albatross ("The Skin of Our Teeth"), Estragon ("Waiting for Godot"), Bloody Five ("A Man's a Man"), Philoctetes (in NY premiere of Seamus Heaney's "The Cure at Troy") and Davies ("The Caretaker"), among others. He created the role of August in the world premiere of Tennessee Williams' "Something Cloudy, Something Clear" and the role of The Man in the world premiere of Williams' "Kirche, Kutchen und Kinder." He has been a visiting professor of theater at Bard College. In 2004, Smith Craig and four colleagues, including his wife, actress Elise Stone, founded Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, which has presented three to six new and classical works annually. He is the recipient of the President of the Borough of Manhattan's Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts and Community Service.

Grant Neale is a former member of the acclaimed Jean Cocteau Repertory and the legendary Ridiculous Theatrical Company and has appeared as Gunner in "Misalliance" (Jean Cocteau Rep.), Lech in "Brother Truckers" (Ridiculous Theatrical Co.), Nicodemus/Lady Enid in "The Mystery of Irma Vep" (Stage Works), Penizek in "Countess Maritza" (Santa Fe Opera), The Devil in "Old Scratch" (Ontological Hysterical), Scapin in "Scapin" (New York Classical Theatre), Frosch in "Die Fledermaus" (San Francisco Opera), Leontes "the Winter's Tale" (Milwaukee Shakespeare), Nicolae Ceausescu in Saviana Stanescu's "Waxing West" (East Coast Artists), Hans Pekk in "Purge" by Sofi Oksanen (La MaMa) and most recently as Roman Polanski in "Polanski Polanski" (Nomad Theatrical Co.; Innovative Theatre Award nomination for outstanding solo performance). Grant has directed 25 productions, teaches acting, and is Artistic Director of Nomad Theatrical Co.

Set Design is by Grant Neale. Lighting design is by Jay Ryan. Costume design is by Ramona Ponce. Puppet design is by Corey Antiel. Theatrical Engineer is Jeff Duer. Music is composed by Katie Down.

"Fool's Lear" will be presented in repertory with a number of other shows in Phoenix Theatre Ensemble's Spring Rep Festival. Notable among these is "Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth" by Tom Stoppard (May 2 to 23). It's an evening of two short plays in which Stoppard radically shortens "Hamlet" and "Macbeth" to craft a witty Shakespearean two-step on themes of political dissent. Kevin Confoy directs. The festival also includes 10:00 shows by Michael Lydon, Alexis Powell, The Petting Zoo and Chris Lowe and a daytime offering for young audiences, "Improv 4 Kids." For more information, visit www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org.

Photo by David Mandel.

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