Monday, July 06, 2009

King Lear

Portland Actors Ensemble **Photo credit: Annaliese Moyer**
June 11 - July 11, 2009

Review by peanutduck

Disclaimer: I left at intermission; this being one of my favorite plays, I lost the patience, and lacked the faith, to wait for the company to realize the enormous tragic proportions of King Lear - both the play and the man. Lear’s downfall was akin to tripping over a pebble.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry dear Followspot reviewer, but you obviously didn't see the same play that I did. I greatly enjoyed the Fool's antics, Lear's interpretation, and the venom spewed by both sisters. Edgar's transformation to poor Tom and back for vengeance was wonderful to watch as well.

Unfortunately, your review is only two sentences long. I have no idea whAt you objected to. The program AND the opening speech by the company director warned you of the length of the play. I also greatly enjoyed seeing the show in such a unique setting.

I am truly puzzled by your reaction, as I have heard from many people that this is one of the best PAE tragedies they've seen.

peanutduck said...

I agree it's one of my more vague reviews, in part because I left early, which I almost never do. I had no objection to the length of the play. And I'm always glad if someone has a different experience.

The interpretation of the man and monarch Lear, was weak. I didn't believe this man was "every inch a king" (in addition to being a mere arrogant man), nor that Kent would give up everything to follow him. It was closer to a mild family drama, with some blood thrown in. Characterizations and relationships unbelievable. Lear's mad storm was anything but raging. This is a play of grand scale emotions and themes - passion, treachery, betrayal, devotion; I did not see these onstage.

I heard that post-intermission was much better, but I was too frustrated to find out.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything Peanutduck has to say. This production is flat, dull, and unengaging.

Anonymous said...

And that park is the worst performance space I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

While your observation may (or may not) be valid, the rule is still "no review without watching the whole thing". You should know that.

Anonymous said...

the rule is still "no review without watching the whole thing".

What rule? Where does it say that? Followspot is a blog, and its rules are completely up to the discretion of the blog administrator.

Anonymous said...

No. She saw the same show those of us who stayed saw. I'd have left if my friends would have let me, but they are die hards.
If a play sucks in the first act, the second act will most likely suck and there is no improvement that can save a 2 hour first act in 50 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I thought Act II was brilliant.

Act I was a little slow, and quite long, and while I enjoyed it a certain amount, I was hoping for more.

Act II delivered. Great fights, and some lovely performances.

If you left at intermission, you really cheated yourself.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with anonymous 7/06/2009 01:10:00 AM.
Explain what really changed from act 1 to act 2. If Peanutduck thought act 1 was miserable, he/she was not going to come around for act 2. Lear's "madness" was no more believable or justified than it was in act 1. The "evil villains" were just as generic and one dimensional as they were in the first act. Gloucester was just as underplayed as before, and all of the small characters/ensemble seemed just as bored and uniterested in the proceedings as the first time around. Thankfully the ill-conceived fool went away (with no explaination) but that was only a minor improvement.
The Lear/Cordelia scenes were nice. Edgar was good. and the fight was exciting, but was that really going to bring anyone who hated acted one back around? It sure didn't change my mind.

Anonymous said...

i know a film critic who used to fall asleep and then write a review anyway.
sometimes he would be late, and still write a review.

sometimes, though rarely, a show can make the wait worthwhile by sticking it out to the end.

however, theatre is really not about suffering.

if you can't get the audience back for act ii, something is clearly amiss.

Anonymous said...

Now you must have seen a different show. Act 2 had smaller more personal scenes and so connected much more than the first act, but it was far from brilliant, except in relation to how hopeless act 1 was. Unfocused, confusing blocking, lack of connection between actors and terrible choices by the supporting actors.

If your entrance as a torch bearer gets an (inappropriate) laugh. Fix your hair. One of dozens of distracting poor choices by the cast and or director.

Anonymous said...

Now for the middle-of-the road perspective.

In general I was rather disappointed, because I’d hoped for better from this production. But there were some things I liked. The show clearly got stronger in the second half; decent fight choreography and creative staging decisions helped, but some of the actors also rose to the occasion after the break. Edmund and Edgar were both strong to begin with, and stronger in part two.

I liked the way the costumer provided a color scheme that helped define the families and power blocs.

One of the problems is that I understand PAE has increasingly been doing the same thing as other companies in town: depending on its chummy insiders, and even precasting roles. I can understand the impetus for this: nobody likes the audition process, and it’s comfy to work with people whose talents and work habits you know. But comfy doesn’t necessarily make for the best theater from an audience perspective. Note that the best received NW Classical productions in recent years have been the ones in which the leads and more were filled by non-company members. Here, with the possible exception of Margaret Lillie’s nicely acid Regan, nearly all the roles handled by regulars were adequate at best.

Of the others, Hanson’s Lear was all right – increasingly better after the heath. The Cordelia was more substantial of figure and voice than I tend to expect, but a good actress. Clara Hillier is a fine actress and worked hard to put across the Fool, but the casting was just too jarring for me to accept. The Gloucester was painfully inadequate.

I’m afraid the setting worked against the show. Most of the actors could be heard all right over the rumble of traffic on the St Johns Bridge above, but many of them sounded strained and stiff in doing it. I was expecting a majestic setting, and it was that to some extent, but the particular spot PAE chose was a relatively small concrete circle bounded by a low brick wall, above which the audience sat and looked down on the action, which made the immediate setting oddly intimate, and I wonder whether that might have diminished the overall feel of the performance.

Two struts of the bridge south is a vast grassy expanse with a broadleaf tree nestled precisely between the concrete legs of the bridge; there, the “stage” and audience would have been at the same level, dwarfed by the flat space, with a much higher “ceiling” (and lower traffic noise level). Challenging for exits and entrances, certainly, but I have to wonder how that might have played.

On the other hand, while I can see the point of the oft-made argument that No Shakespeare is Better Than Bad Shakespeare, I ultimately have to disagree, especially in the case of free Shakespeare in the parks. The fear seems to be that Shakespeare will be damaged by poor performances; that audiences will be alienated from the plays -- or from theater in general -- for years to come by a bad show. I’m not convinced that’s the case. I’ve seen too many na├»ve citizens turned on by Shakespeare shows you or I might call bad-to-mediocre, because they’ve never seen ANY Shakespeare before, and whether they ever pay for a ticket in the future, everyone’s already ahead. Those of us who love Shakespeare already are not going to stop seeking him out just because we saw a less than sterling production. Even with bad Shakespeare, I still find myself marveling at the clash and dance of the language.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by the criticism of companies like PAE or NW Classical casting "chums" in their plays. I believe that what both of these companies do, as well as companies like Vertigo, defunct, Third Rail and every single other small theater in town, is make a genuine effort as much as possible to cast the people who devote their time and energy to keeping the company alive. It's not "chums". These people are the company itself.

Running a small theater company in Portland is volunteer work. So is it any wonder that when it comes to hiring actors, a company is going to try and reward some of the people who have spent the last year toiling away to keep them afloat? ART has a resident company and regularly pre-casts its artistic director in plum roles. Broadway Rose frequently uses the same actors over and over. That's just how theater works. It's worked that way since the days of Shakespeare ("Why the hell does he keep using Burbage?" I imagine the Elizabethan blogs clammored, "why doesn't that bastard Will Shakespeare have more open calls and give somebody else a chance!")

PAE has one of the best reputations in town for open casting calls and reaching out to new talent. A lot of local actors did their first show in town at PAE, myself included. NW Classical runs under a resident company model and holds open general auditions for that company. That's part of their mission statement.

All arguments aside, the actors in King Lear playing the major roles of Edmund, Edgar, Goneril and Gloucester were all making their PAE debuts as far as I know. While perhaps not perfect, there is some very good work in the show. Keep an eye in particular on Alex Wilson and Ken Potts. As Edgar and Edmund both of these young men make fantastic debuts. They are good looking and very charismatic and they both do exceptional voice and character work. Their final fight is one of the best staged fight scenes I've ever seen on a Portland stage. I believe this is Wilson's first play in Portland and I believe both young men were cast from an call. Margaret Lille is also stunning as Reagan. As a major supporting board member of the company for over a decade, I don't think anyone begrudges her the pre-casting and she more than proves herself worthy of the role.

This whole pre-casting argument really doesn't hold water.

Anonymous said...

It would have better served choosing a director before making any casting decisions. Several people chose not to apply for the position since 2 major roles were cast without any input.

Alan Nause is a brilliant actor who any company in town would love to have in any cast.
Broadway Rose consistently hires the best musical theater talents available. That Leif, Wade and Amy is proof of that, not of clubbiness.
The resident company of ART is comprised of actors who play leads in every other theater in town. As company members they often play "as cast".
Lear could have been much better and some competition or any competition for the role of director could only have helped.
Precasting isn't really the issue. Best available talent is. PAE needs as wide a net as possible.

For all it's faults, Lear was better than Caesar and Caesar was better than Shrew, so I guess you can see an upwards trend.

Anonymous said...

While you had some valid points, Anonymous 7/06/2009 05:57:00 PM, you kind of spoiled it by revealing you haven't been paying attention to the meteoric rise of Alec Wilson. This is far from his first play in Portland, though he has been active in town for less than a year. I saw him in Vertigo's "Pterodactyls" and Profile's "Biloxi Blues," and before that he was in Classic Greek Theatre's "Antigone" last fall. He's also done some staged readings and I believe he's appearing in Quintessence's "Pride and Prejudice" next.

Anonymous said...

Hanson (Lear) isn't exactly an outsider.

He's on PAE's board....

Anonymous said...

I think the long-term flaw in the repeated casting of familiar faces within one company is that the audience eventually wants to see someone else, anyone else, in the shows they come to see.
Over the long haul, it does get a bit "familiar."
Subscribers want both familiarity and variety.
Yes, casting your buddies is the path of least resistance, but as has been proven again and again, injections of new blood make for a revitalized creative process.
Casting new faces is often the path of greatest adventure, and therefore greatest achievement.

Anonymous said...

I am indeed remiss in not being more familiar with Mr. Wilson's work. I knew he was in the upcoming Pride and Prejudice but I missed the other two shows. I stand happily corrected. Glad to see this talented young new-comer is getting the attention he deserves. My apologies.

While I frequently hear unemployed actors decry "the long-term flaw in the repeated casting of familiar faces within one company" I have never seen evidence that such a flaw actually exists. Certainly it has never proved to be a problem for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where actors sometime perform for decades. I believe part of ART's intent in putting together a resident company was the idea that audiences actually like seeing the same actors over and over again. That certainly seems to be the case in film. The only people who seem bothered by this practice are actors who do not benefit from it, and while I sympathize with them, I don't think claiming that they have the best interest of the audiences on their side is particularly valid.

I am surmising from these other comments that the feeling is that pre-casting is acceptable if the actors are deemed worthy, but since the poster felt they might personally have done a better job in one of the roles in Lear, pre-casting is a serious problem?
Apparently precasting Allen, Leif, Amy, Wade or any of the resident company members at ART is acceptable only because these are actors of sufficient magnitude that clearly no one it town could have given them a run for their money? Good to know the local talent pool has been that thoroughly vested.

I think it's acceptable to pre-cast these actors for the same reason it's acceptable to precast any of the actors in Lear. It's what the director wanted in the role, its in the best interest of the company and ultimately its about the director and company's relationship with their audiences, not about making a level playing field for local talent.

From what I have seen, Lear has had larger audiences this summer than most of the other shows currently running in Portland combined, so they must be doing something right in that relationship.

It might be important to remember that PAE, being free theater, is entirely reliant on donations to support itself. That means the actors make virtually nothing for their efforts. It's unlikely that most of the talented professionals mentioned above would accept a role for little or no pay (although Amya played Desdemona in PAE's Othello and Rosaline, quite charmingly, in their As You Like It a few years back). With no money to offer and a huge commitment to ask of any actor, I can well see why a director might not trust to the open audition process the hope of a Lear walking in off the street. It's not surprising at all that a company member was recruited in advance or that preliminary casting of some key roles was figured out.

I'm still not hearing a compelling argument why pre-casting is a bad thing for anyone other than out of work actors.

Anonymous said...

Alec Wilson is also in Midsommer.

He's a busy man.

Anonymous said...

You sound a bit like a lawyer.
I have no desire to play Lear and so don't accept the sour grapes slant on your essay at all.
As for "I believe part of ART's intent in putting together a resident company was the idea that audiences actually like seeing the same actors over and over again. That certainly seems to be the case in film."
Are you saying that we have "movie stars" in town?
That the audience actually tracks and worships local actors?
I stand by my decree that the audience eventually gets bored seeing the same faces over and over again.
It is perhaps a good time to state that I do 6 shows a year on average and so I AM one of those guys.
And I STILL say, that audiences want new blood from time to time.
I don't think the concept of the resident company is a viable one, if it is done to the exclusion of "outsiders" 100%.
When all you have to look fwd to as an audience member is the same 4 people you saw in the last show, it is no longer about seeing how cleverly the actors can switch gears.
Not even Olivier could pull that off all the time.
Eventually the mannerisms become predicatable and the play is compromised.
It is good while it lasts -- the resident company idea -- and then it is no longer a good idea.
Trust me. It won't last.

splattworks said...

When I ran a company, we ran about half-and-half: half people whose work we loved and we loved to work with, and half new people because it was exciting to find new talent and the new blood was invigorating to work with. Plus our mission was to do new plays, so it made sense to mix in new actors, designers, etc.

Plus it's worth noting that most of the "usual suspects" paid their dues working in tiny theatres for little or no pay.


Anonymous said...

I notice the same debating ploys here on Followspot that one sees elsewhere on the Internet: deft avoidance of the main thrust of the opposition’s argument either by offering a single, often tangential, counter-example, or by ignoring it altogether.

For example, Anonymous 7/07/09 03:51:00 PM responds to complaints about pre-casting in shows by companies such as PAE and NW Classical with the counter-example of ART -- hardly the same thing at all. Then, he or she writes that pre-casting Lear is acceptable because “It’s what the director wanted in the role…” This completely overlooks an apparent fact that was explicitly raised by another poster: characters were precast even before there was a director for this show, which may have discouraged potential directors. (I don’t mean to disparage Hanson or Lillie here; their performances were acceptable -- far better than those of some other PAE regulars in this show.)

Another tired debate ploy is to presume the status or state of mind of the opposition, rather than sticking to the substance of the argument. Here, M. or Mme. Anonymous calls the opposition out-of-work actors. There’s no way of knowing whether this is true. I daresay it’s not in this particular thread. I’m in a show that’s opening this week, myself, so clearly it’s not just unemployed actors who object to the buddy system of casting.

The “same familiar faces” argument overlooks the point raised earlier, that NW Classical’s most praised shows in the past year or two were peopled (and sometimes directed) by non-company members.

As for Lear’s reputed large audiences, PAE shows ALWAYS draw greater numbers than most other companies, year after year. They’re free, after all; and one may bring one’s own picnic and booze to the show. Other than the “unemployed actors” who aren’t in conflicting shows, they may not be competing for the same audiences that have to get paying customers. Note that in years past, however, there has been almost no comment on PAE shows from the acting community on Followspot, and what little there is has often been dismissive to savage.

Those of you who are supportive of the company concept have probably not been supporting this one on this forum.

Anonymous said...

"It is good while it lasts -- the resident company idea -- and then it is no longer a good idea.
Trust me. It won't last."

It's been lasting for centuries. I suspect that your pronouncement of its impending doom has no merit whatsoever. Do you have any actual evidence to support the notion that audiences have grown tired of seeing the same actors over and over? Any at all?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the name of the company, "Portland Actors Ensemble", might be a clue as to how the company might operate?

K. Hillis said...

I'd ordinarily avoid a conversation like this one because it's...stupid. But this caught my attention:

"The “same familiar faces” argument overlooks the point raised earlier, that NW Classical’s most praised shows in the past year or two were peopled (and sometimes directed) by non-company members."

Absolutely true. Of course, it's also true of our LEAST praised shows as well. Virtually every production the NWCTC puts on employs guest artists. The last mainstage production we've put up which had been almost entirely composed of company members in the cast was HENRY V. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

"Do you have any actual evidence to support the notion that audiences have grown tired of seeing the same actors over and over? Any at all?"
Your honor, what would you accept as evidence?
I humbly offer only things I have heard, together with my own selfish desire to see someone other than the same faces in the same type roles, season after season.
Broadway Rose is one of the prime examples of this practice.
Seeing an familiar actor tackle something totally new for them is thrilling. Seeing them do the same basic character season after season is simply not interesting.
May I go now? Or am I still in contempt?

Carl said...

alec was eugene in biloxi blues and did an extraordinary job as well. just saying.

Anonymous said...

The whole "resident company" thread is kinda off track so I'll just say I imagine there's evidence to support it on both sides. Some of those people down in Ashland have been there for 30 years and people keep coming back.

But the problem with Lear is not so much casting regulars as it is a lack of reward for an actor. Why would an actor want to work on a project in strenuous conditions, with a limited budget, a novice or less experienced director, with several novice or less experienced actors, for little pay?

Certainly some actors do, but until they can appeal to a higher caliber of performer, PAE will always be considered amateur.

Now in their defense maybe this is all they aspire to be. A quick look at the mission statement implies that their only goal is to provide free theater in a non-traditional setting (although Shakespeare-in-the-park is pretty traditional) which I suppose they do.

But when I see comments on this blog that take offense when some people didn't like the show or when I read on another thread that PAE is miffed that they've been ignored by the drammys, that implies to me that this company believes they are something more than they are.

Ben Waterhouse said...

As long as the actors have chops, I think audiences like seeing them over and over again. I've talked to a lot of Artists Rep fans who are enjoying fantasy-casting the resident company in the season lineup. They feel they get to know the company of actors, whether or not they ever actually speak. Of course, if the actors can't cut it... well, that's when you lose audiences.

Anonymous said...

"Some of those people down in Ashland have been there for 30 years and people keep coming back."

This doesn't track.

Ashland survives on tourists.
I'll bet 90% of sales are from out of town, out of state.

To the audience, the actors are new.

This doesn't work in Portland, where 90% of ticket sales are residents.

S. Kelsey said...

I find it easier to lose myself in a story when the performers are unknown to me.
Then again, they do put movie stars names above the title. Show "business".

Anonymous said...

We enjoy going to Ashland and seeing familar faces and enjoy seeing people in Portland shows from previous shows. Me and my wife have no problem with repeat casting as long as they are good and appropriate for the roles. Most companies end up moving through actors eventually so it is rare a companies group of actors will be stale from and audience point of view. That's life in theater. The really talented people and new talent seem to get plenty of work. Sour grapes from those who are not. People age as well, so casting opportunities always arise unless you are already at the higher age bracket.

Anonymous said...

"Sour grapes from those who are not."


Slightly talented people and geezers?

I don't believe your post.
I do not believe that there are audience members on here who post like that.
I think you are an actor.
That is my theory.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is on the outside at some point in their career. Pre-casting and ensemble casting have been common practices in theater since the days of Sophocles. It has its advantages and disadvantages.

If, as an actor, you benefit from it, it's a good thing. If it means you don't have a shot at a role you think you would be good for, then it's a bad thing.

It has pluses and minuses for audiences as well. Audiences like to see actors they like over and over in different roles. That's what makes some people stars and creates fans even on a very small scale like Portland.

On the other hand, this can lead to over exposure of certain actors or artistic stagnancy and boring repetition. It happens on the big scale as well (I think Tom Cruise is a fantastic actor, and I never need to see him in another movie ever again, thanks.)

For producers who are thinking about their audiences, open calls are a big risk and often not a risk worth taking with a limited talent pool. Maybe the perfect Lear will walk into your open call but probably he wont. In a town as small as Portland the odds are not in your favor. If you had only precast that one guy three months ago, you would not now be faced with giving your audiences merely "the best Lear that showed up at your open call".

Also, I'm not sure where somebody got the idea that Mr. Hanson and Ms. Lillie were chosen before the director of the show was selected. I believe Mr. Lillie presented Mr. Hanson as part of his directorial proposal and probably cast his wife shortly after being offered the job. I'm pretty sure the director was hired first though.

Also, I don't think Peanutduck is obliged to stay to the end of any show she doesn't want to. She is not a professional theater critic and not paid anything or held accountable to an editor or a newspaper. Readers should perhaps keep that in mind however when reading her reviews. She is simply a young woman with an opinion and access to a web site. Take it or leave it.

Anonymous said...

Like Alec Wilson, Ken Potts has been great in many, many other productions as well.

Anonymous said...

Ken Potts apparently stars in PAE's next show, Henry the Fourth. Maybe we could move on to talking about that play instead?

It looks like it will also star NWCTC regulars (and Shakespearean hotties) Butch Flowers and Tom Walton as well as the ever dreamy Mr. Potts.

All three? Be still my heart! Now that's my idea of an afternoon delight!

- signed "a fan"

Anonymous said...

I'd just like to say that I think Racheal Erickson (who I haven't seen a single pro or con comment about so far) was perfectly evil in this production, and (at LEAST) matched Margaret Lillie's lovely performance, if not surpassed it. Just putting that out there. Huge kudos to both extremely talented ladies.