BWW Interview: Frank X of THE JEWISH QUEEN LEAR at Theater J
Frank X is making his Theater J debut as Shalmen in the upcoming production of The Jewish Queen Lear (also known as Mirele Efros). Most recently, he appeared in A Christmas Carol at the McCarter Theater. Favorite roles have included Estragon in Waiting For Godot (Quintessence Theatre, 2018 Barrymore Award nomination), Malvolio in Twelfth Night (Seattle Rep), Camilo in The Winter's Tale (Folger Theater), Misha in Black Russian (Blue Heron Theatre, AUDELCO Award nomination), Hector in The History Boys (Arden Theatre), Carl in Lonely Planet (InterAct Theatre, Barrymore Award), Sam in Master Harold...And The Boys, and the title role in King Lear (both at Lantern Theatre).
Let's start with your background - what was your path to this show?
I'm a Philly-based actor, and native. I had the pleasure of working with Adam Immerwahr [director] at McCarter on A Christmas Carol - we just closed it on January 1st, and he reached out to me about auditioning. When I read the the script, I was excited - it's the sort of thing I've never been considered for. It's never really comes up. It's an English translation of a classic Yiddish play. I really wanted to be a part of it, and luckily, I was cast.
Were you familiar with the Yiddish plays before? There's been a revitalization now, especially in New York, but they were out of fashion for a while.
When I was in college, there was still a Yiddish theater scene in New York, and then you didn't hear about it. I think it's going through a revival, especially with this hit off-Broadway production of Fiddler. It's so exciting.
It's nice seeing this, and seeing that there's still interest.
It is, and I'm excited! It's part of our theater heritage. There was this incredible, thriving Yiddish theater for so long, and I'd hate to see that it's forgotten. I think I knew three plays - The Dybbuk, The Golem, and God of Vengeance. Those are the three that most people have heard of, although most people, like myself, are not seeing them. And I imagine most people haven't read them.
It definitely feels like we're having a moment in theater - we're telling new stories, but also revisiting old ones in new ways.
I was reading about the upcoming Broadway production of Oklahoma - they're focusing on exploring the darker aspects of the show. I always saw it as lighter, if you ignore the whole Judd plot, but this is much darker and I'm so there.
It's interesting - I think there are things that were glossed over or made lighter in the earlier productions.
I love that - looking back on things that were there all along, that we might not have noticed, for whatever reason.
So what drew you, specifically, to The Jewish Queen Lear?
I was totally unfamiliar with the play and the script - I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know its reputation; I hear now it's regarded to be one of the seminal works. It's a marvelously human story, and I love that.
It's the King Lear story - we have a woman, a strong woman, who has made her way in a man's world (business) in a big way. She has sons, not daughters, and the sons sort of oust her from the business, and take over. And the basic story is: will there be a healing for this family? Will they be able to come together again? And it's really lovely watching the story work out, seeing some of the parallels.
My character is her second-in-command - her business manager, sort of a Kent figure. He's very loyal, follows her through her ups and downs through the story, and remains a very trusted friend and colleague.
What I love about this play - you think about when it was written, and here is a man who sees a woman in a typical man's position, and thinks this is the way it should be. She has a king's mind - it's clear she should be a leader in the business world, she was sort of born to it. It's interesting to think this man saw her that way in 1898. I love that. Even today, that's forward-thinking, which is a shame. And to think that Jacob Gordin created a character like this at that time . . . . I love the character.
To me, even the ones who come across initially as the villains - the children don't stand by her and the in-laws can be seen as grasping - but it's fascinating to think Gordin was writing in a genre, but doesn't see characters as black and white. They're fully fleshed-out people, reveling in both their bad sides and their good sides. I hope our production does justice to that.
It's very exciting.
I'm very excited! We're only a week into rehearsals, and we have high hopes. I'm excited to get this in front of an audience and see what we have. It's a marvelous cast of DC actors - one of whom I worked with in A Christmas Carol, Sue Jin Song. We have a number of names that will be familiar to DC audiences: Valerie Leonard is the title character - she's marvelous, both commanding and moving.
We also have a number of Georgetown University students who are playing the younger roles - Healy Knight, Charles Trepany, and Christopher Warren. Adam cast the play age-appropriate. We also have this incredible young actor, Shane Wall, who's playing the grandson.
One interesting aspect of the production is that we're setting it in the modern day, which I find utterly fascinating. You would think it's clearly a period piece, but I think Adam wants to sort of show (subtly) that it still applies today. I love that - it's kind of jarring every once in a while, when we refer to horses and carriages since we're not changing the dialogue, but the dress is more modern.
It harkens to Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet," how they referred to swords and such, but used modern dress and weaponry.
We do that all the time with Shakespeare, and it works famously. I saw a production of All's Well in college by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and they had transposed the production to World War I, which works famously since the values are the same. There was a King of France, but it wasn't at all jarring because everything else made sense. I love the fact that you can do that with Shakespeare, if you're thoughtful about it. And that's what we're trying to do here.
I think Shakespeare prevails over the centuries because it is so adaptable.
Are there things you think audiences should keep in mind when they see this show?
I think it's a wonderful play - it's wonderfully human, and I think that audiences will be able to identify with it. I think the more specific the writing is, the more universal it becomes. Athol Fugard writes about South Africa, but you don't need to understand South African politics to understand the plot or be moved. Here's a play that takes place in a shtetl - but who can't relate to family turmoil? And a younger generation struggling to be independent? And a parent who's holding on to tradition and has to learn to adapt over time?
The play takes place over about 13 years - so, for me/my character, it's very much about change and how we have to adapt, and the difficulties of doing exactly that. It sounds a lot like Fiddler, but that's what I relate to in the play.
I hope people will come in and just want to see a good show. And enjoy spending a little time with these characters.
Theater J's production of The Jewish Queen Lear runs at Georgetown University's Davis Performing Arts Center in the Gonda Theatre from March 13th through April 7th.