In the first scene of William Shakespeare's King Lear, the King judges his daughters and their inheritances based solely on their declarations of love for him. To him, words are all important. They are important to Alexa Kelly as well, the artistic of the Pulse Ensemble Theatre, as well as the director of this new production of King Lear now playing at the Hudson Guild Playhouse.
It is easy to understand the source of Kelly's dedication. King Lear is long, with two intertwining storylines. One is about Lear and his daughters, and the other about an attempt to takeover the throne of Gloucester by an illegitimate heir to the throne, and both contain many important lessons about familial relationships, misunderstanding, and redemption. As with Lear, however, words eventually become Kelly's downfall as well.
In trying to make every word clear, she has rendered the play almost unlistenable. The actors shout nearly every line, suggesting either their lack of faith in the audience ability to understand the dialogue, or at the very least a disreguard of the acoustics of the theatre in which they are performing. The Hudson Guild Playhouse is very small, which makes scenes set on roads (complete with car horns loud enough to drown out the actors), actors shouting over the heads of the audience, and even a pistol being fired (only feet away from the first row) truly painful experiences.
For all the volume, though, any real emotions are as undetectable as a whisper. Though Kelly's idea of updating the play to 1950s New York wasn't necessarily a bad one, the execution leaves much to be desired. The setting is never used to enhance emotions or situations - in fact, when feelings exist at all, they seem to live nowhere beneath the characters' surfaces. Anger is forced, compassion phony, and most emotional journeys non-existent, rendering the production particularly unsatisfying. Lear's foibles are all too evident, but his understanding and eventual change of heart seem to come from nowhere. The other characters all suffer from much of the same problem. There is no one to root for, or against, in this production. It is difficult to tell if Kelly is at fault, or if the actors simply were not up to the challenges of the play. Most likely it's a little bit of both.
Ed Schiff seems far too young and in control of his faculties for Lear, and acts mostly with an anguished wail that grows old long before the end of the first act. Edmund, the treacherous illegitimate son of Gloucester (here played as a woman by Hanna Hayes) gives an overblown performance with speeches to the audience that are far more silly than presentational. None of Lear's daughters (played by Francesca Marrone, Melanie McCarthy, and Carlie McCarthy) make much of an impression, as their relationship with each other or their father is hardly ever made clear.
In a production rife with overacting, Hal B. Klein's frantic fool - who, in one scene, is dragged in on a leash - is particularly painful to watch. Carl Danielson, as Edmund's wronged brother Edgar, and Mark Campbell as Kent come the closest to turning in well-rounded performances, but tend to fade into the background since their lines aren't shouted like everyone else's.
William Shakespeare was a master wordsmith who was capable of telling stories and creating characters that embodied the very nature of humanity. The character of Lear is one of Shakespeare's strongest, and the play surrounding him is among Shakespeare's most dramatic and meaningful. One watching the play should be exposed to every delicious word, every nuance infused into the characters and situations. Ear plugs would seem to be blasphemy against Shakespeare's creation but, alas, there is no other way to watch the Pulse Ensemble Theatre production.
Pulse Ensemble Theatre