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The Fool’s Lear

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

The Fool’s Lear
Grant Neale and Craig Smith.
Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

There certainly has been a bumper crop of King Lear performances this year, with two major productions behind us (one starring Frank Langella, the second with Michael Pennington), and another coming this summer (John Lithgow). But even with all that, you really do need to make room for The Fool’s Lear, a smartly conceived, emotionally rewarding comic drama having an all-too-brief run at The Wild Project.

A joint production of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and the Nomad Theatrical Company, The Fool’s Lear, written by Randy Neale, retells the story of Shakespeare’s tragic king through his relationship with his fool. You may be reminded of the great absurdist dramatists like Beckett, Stoppard, and Ionesco, and even clown master Bill Irwin. And perhaps the playwright has immersed himself in all of these, but he has also immersed himself in Shakespeare. In those places where King Lear and The Fool’s Lear overlap, the splicing is seamless.

The play opens on the morning of Lear’s planned abdication. While the king lies asleep, snoring loudly, the Fool speculates: “Is a king still a king, even as he sleeps; Is not his power as great even as he mewls, he dreams, he drools? Or does his majesty rest with him?” Lear, along with the rest of us, is about to discover where his majesty resides as he moves forward with his plan to divide his kingdom.

Throughout the play, which has a two-hour running time, the king (Craig Smith) remains the Lear we know — foolishly and stubbornly determined to bend the world and his daughters to suit his ends, while declining steadily into mental dissolution and death. But it is the Fool (Grant Neale) who is the playwright’s great invention: wise as such “fools” are, loving and loyal, challenging and supportive — yet powerless to change the unfolding of events. It is significant that this Fool is a middle-aged man, someone who has spent his entire life in service to the king as part of the royal household (he even refers to Lear’s daughters as his own sisters). Where is he to go, now that he is bound to a king without a kingdom? What is to become of his own hopes and dreams?

Mr. Smith as Lear splendidly captures both the king’s obstinacy and his steady descent, while Grant Neale, who happens to be the playwright’s brother, not only makes for a most clever, inventive, and agile Fool, but also serves as the play’s director and very creative scenic designer, using the simplest of props to advance the story. The perfect costumes by Ramona Ponce and the lighting by Jay Ryan contribute greatly to the overall impact.

If ever the overused term “tour de force” applies, it is with The Fool’s Lear It should be performed in rep with King Lear whenever possible. It is that good!


The Fool’s Lear
Through May 25
Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, between Avenues A & B
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: phoenixtheatreensemble.org