BWW Review: Superb KING LEAR at Avant Bard is Fitting Swan Song for DC Acting Legend Rick Foucheux
Before I outline the reasons you should get to Arlington to experience KING LEAR in the superb production by WSC Avant Bard, I want to share a memory.
It was the summer of 1988, my second summer at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival in Williamsburg. Playing various soldiers and servants, in that summer's KING LEAR I had one line. Ken, the mountain of an actor who played Lear as a rough-hewn chieftain, barked out his line, "How now! Are the horses ready?"
As "Attendant" - but mostly as the intimidated and green member of a Shakespeare company - I squeaked back my line: "Ready, my lord."
Although at one particular performance, no one heard the line. I did not say it. When Lear asked about the horses, his attendant was happily while away the time in the green room and not listening to the tannoy. I missed my entrance and realized it when I heard Ken/Lear emphasize his line one more time over the speaker: "Attendant! My horses?!"
I rushed to the stage door and met this physically and vocally imposing actor at the door. Before I could squirt out an apology, Ken sized me up and down. With a wry but annoyed smile, he said, "I guess you won't miss an entrance again."
"No, sir," was my feeble yet truthful response.
Except for one minor slip during a production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, I have stuck to that plan.
I shared this anecdote to relate my only real connection to Shakespeare's KING LEAR and the power of a leading actor who takes on one of the most daunting and tragic roles in the canon, and indeed all of dramatic literature. King Lear - the aging monarch who attempts to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, banishes his favorite youngest child while being betrayed by the other two. Lear, who gives up the trappings of a king, but wishes to keep some of the perks. And Lear, possibly one of the first times in world drama that a character is shown loses his grip on reality as time and the situation weighs so heavily on him, he snaps and the dementia holds sway until the final, heartrending moments of the play.
Lear is a role for an actor at the pinnacle of his powers. (I guess I need to add her powers, since award-winning British actress Glenda Jackson took on the role last year in the U.K.) He shows affection for his children, and turns on a dime, enraged and bitter. Lear laughs with his oldest companions and ends up babbling, grasping at reality. And he rages at the gods, even as a storm to end all storms falls hard upon him. And ideally it is a role for a mature actor, a seasoned player who has tasted life, perhaps even life's lemons, or who knows how to seem like they have lived such a life. Confidence affirmed and confidence slipping into oblivion - all within two and a half hours traffic on a stage.
Tom Prewitt, Avant Bard's current artistic director, knew who he wanted to take on this monumental role: Rick Foucheux. A 35-year veteran of stages large and small in the Washington, DC area, Foucheux has played everything from realism to the avant garde; modern and the classics. He has graced Arena Stage, Wooly Mammoth, the Kennedy Center, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, Theater J, and many others.
Capping off his storied career as he is about to leave the limelight to spend time as a grandfather and to travel, Foucheux taking on Lear is a match made in heaven. Effortlessly commanding the stage, Shakespeare's words and the arc of the tragedy seem newly minted in Foucheux's skillful hands. The affection, the betrayal, the rage and the pitiful end come across with truth and pathos, especially in the intimate Gunston theatre space, used so effectively in this production.
KING LEAR requires other strong players and Prewitt continues the Avant Bard tradition of assembling a powerful ensemble of actors who, along with Foucheux, mine the depths of their characters and offer new twists on Shakespeare's story. Veteran actress and longtime member of the Avant Bard company Cam Magee takes on the regendered role of Gloucester, now the mother of Edgar and her bastard son, the conniving Edmund. Switching the role to female allows the chance for the director and actors to explore a deeper relationship between Lear and Gloucester which Foucheux and Magee work to the fullest. The blinding of Gloucester takes on an even more brutal veneer too.
Founding member of Avant Bard, and their artistic director emeritus, Christopher Henley makes the Fool his own, too, building a strong relationship with Foucheux's Lear. Henley, a master of understatement, makes even throwaway lines speak volumes.
Alyssa Saunders, as Lear's eldest daughter Goneril, and Charlene V. Smith, as a very edgy and bloodthirsty Regan, do well in their roles as the twisted sisters who throw the kingdom into disarray. As the favored, yet banished daughter Cordelia, Kathryn Zoerb is striking in her elegant white dress. She also handles the emotional journey of the innocent daughter who becomes a leader and then is reunited with her troubled father in the final moments of the play.
Males nearly always outnumber the females as character in Shakespeare, but in this production the score is evened out a bit. Sara Barker takes on the male role of Gloucester's son Edgar. Barker's performance is convincing, especially when Edgar hides out in the elements as the crazed beggar, Poor Tom. Barker's scenes with Foucheux and later with Magee as her blinded mother are touching in their simplicity. By contrast, Dylan Morris Myers is cast as Edmund, Edgar's bastard brother, a character that grows in villainy throughout the play. Myers brings an earthy quality to Edmund's treacherous ways.
Another familiar face to DMV audiences plays Regan's duplicitous husband, the Duke of Cornwall, Frank Britton. Britton is no stranger to Shakespeare and here pulls off Cornwall's cruel acts with ease. By contrast, the virtuous Kent is played by Vince Eisenson successfully. Christian R. Gibbs, as the Duke of Albany, also turns in a strong performance as Goneril's spouse who grows to see the evil his wife is part of and switches back to assisting reassembling the kingdom.
The scenic design and creative lighting by Jonathan Dahm Robertson and John D. Alexander, respectively, evoke a timeless quality - a tribal circle, surrounded by an exploded geodesic dome, backed by a canopy that also serves as a projection screen. The costumes by Elizabeth Ennis also have the timeless quality that makes the play live in its own time and space. Prewitt has staged the play to be an immersive experience, with arena seating that works to bring the play to a high level of intimacy. The intimate approach, along with the performances of depth and substance breathe life into this production of KING LEAR that is palpable and memorable long after the storm has subsided.
And now, I return to my introductory anecdote, about my single line in a production of KING LEAR nearly 30 years ago. I, as a young actor, made a promise to a seasoned thespian to never miss an entrance. This KING LEAR is about an exit, Rick Foucheux's possible farewell to the stage. I urge you not to miss your entrance for this powerful and very personal production.
Follow Jeff Walker on Twitter - @jeffwalker66
KING LEAR by William Shakespeare
Produced by WSC Avant Bard - Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA 22206 #AvantLear
May 25 - June 25, 2017: Thursday - Saturday 7:30 pm; Saturday and Sunday 2 pm. All Thu. and Sat. matinee performances are Pay What You Can.
Two hours, 45 minutes with one intermission.
For tickets, call 703.418.4808 or go to AvantBard.org/tickets
PHOTO CREDIT: DJ Corey Photography