Eccentric ‘Lear’ caps a brazen Mesri career

My first review for this newspaper was of Green, the first play Julian Mesri ’09 directed at the College. Four years later, he brings his career here to a close by directing the Cap & Bells production of King Lear, which went up last weekend in Goodrich Hall. Something that must be said of Mesri is that he has used his time in college to produce a recognizable body of work, an achievement more easily dismissed than undertaken. I have seen most of it, and so I have had the opportunity to watch him grow with and through his art. His Lear is clearly intended as the fulfillment of what he has attempted here, and it is the best work I have seen him do.

The production was divided into two acts, and the first was especially successful in sustaining an atmosphere of contemporary menace. Lear’s dividing of his kingdom is imagined as a press conference: Courtesy of the innovative video design of George Carstocea ’10, various moments in the show were filmed from the stage and broadcast on a projector screen behind the performers. Jonathan Draxton ’12, who met the hideously demanding role of Lear with courage and dedication, was especially strong in these early scenes. Sporting an officer’s jacket and a military haircut, he radiated a flinty self-assurance that recalled the coldly commanding television appearances of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld before and during the Iraq War. It was particularly refreshing to see Mesri employ so light a touch where previously he would have been tempted to resort to a heavy hand – this was the kind of successfully political theater that Mesri has been striving for throughout his career here.

Goneril and Regan (Michaela Morton ’12 and Anna Heffernan-Fagone ’12) also played to the big screen, investing their roles with a Real World-inflected self-conscious sexuality that reinforced the Oedipal edge of their relations with Lear. Nevertheless, I was a little sorry to see two obviously talented young actresses playing more to type than to character.

Lizzie Fox ’12 was double-cast as Cordelia and the Fool, and as the Fool she nearly stole the show, her brassy voice and painted face a complacent mirror of Lear’s growing discomposure. The first act, however, belonged largely to Kent, played by Peter Drivas ’11, who turned in the most charismatic and compelling performance of the evening despite the fact that he was tangled up in a number of Mesri’s most egregious directorial missteps.

I admit that I thought having Kent and Oswald (Jackie Pineda ’12) duel with knitting needles instead of swords was a clever and multi-leveled Freudian joke-dream (I wager Magritte would have approved), but I found the conceit of recasting the subsequent dispute as an episode of Jerry Springer merely illogical and distracting. And when, in the second act, Kent and Lear are reconciled through a No Doubt karaoke session (yes, you read that sentence correctly), I briefly wished I had volunteered to stand in for Gloucester (also, incidentally, played by Mesri) during the eye gouging. It is perhaps worth considering for a moment what it means to have a moving and powerful piece of theater so brutally undercut – but probably not for longer than a moment. The interjection of the urinal into the gallery is of inherent aesthetic interest, but anyone with arms can throw a brick through the windows of the Sainte-Chapelle.

Even if I felt at times Mesri overplayed his hand (speaking of the blinding of Gloucester, his interpretation of that scene made me wish he had left his copy of Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, well, in the bedroom) there can be no denying that he has a genuine eye for spectacle and the present-tense kinetic energy of the stage. King Lear wore its three hours very lightly, and it had a broad and generous reach, offering much to Shakespeare neophytes and acolytes alike (much of the credit for this, of course, belongs to the cast). Still, time spent chasing after outlandish effects occasionally came at the expense of the fundamentals of the play. Certainly Mesri needed to take a steadier hand with Edgar (David Phillips ’12) who went from callous frat boy to mincing masochist in the blink of a costume change. Interestingly it was some of the most difficult material at the end of the play that Phillips handled best: The delicate combination of sorrow and stoicism he brought to his narration of the death of Gloucester made me wish for the Edgar that might have been.

Mesri’s most coherent creation was his Edmund (Nicholas Neumann-Chun ’12) – a transvestite, narcissistic, MySpace wristcutter. One of his speeches is projected on the screen as an installment of a YouTube video diary. In case you’re still not getting the picture: The color of his trenchcoat is Columbine-black. Neumann-Chun’s Edmund is a recognizably contemporary monster, but the characterization is in some ways distastefully solipsistic. The Columbine killers, we now know, were not part of a trench coat mafia, and cross-dressing is no kissing cousin to treachery. But here, if anywhere, there is no shame in coming up a little short. To stage Edmund requires an understanding of an evil that (as Shakespeare knew) defies understanding.

This, I think is the fundamental problem of “modernizing” Shakespeare, as every production in some way must, whether in this kind of confrontational style or less overtly: Everything, or most of it, is already in Shakespeare, and a good production can only remind us to notice things we might not have if left to our own devices. A bad production either manages to convey only the most basic elements of the story, or else ignores the majority of the actual play to prove its own narrow point. This production helped me re-notice the play, even if it sometimes seemed to indulge in noise and attitude for their own sakes. Mesri engaged his material (and with these issues) with more maturity and thoughtfulness than I have yet seen from him, and his young cast members valiantly gave him everything they had. Whether you love what he did with Lear or hate it, you can’t say he didn’t go out in style.

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