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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from King John
Ned Eisenberg and Derek Smith are odd comrades fighting the French. (Photo: Ken Howard)
Contents: February 20, 2000:
(1)"King John" at the American Place Theatre
(2)"The Alchemist" at Classic Stage Company
(3)"King Lear" by the Aquila Theatre Company
(4)"The Iliad" by the Aquila Theatre Company"
(5)"Hamlet" at the Public Theater"

"King John"
by William Shakespeare, directed by Karin Coonrod
Produced by Theatre for a New Audience
American Place Theatre, 111 West 46 St.
Opened January 30, 2000.
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 3, 2000
The creative Karin Coonrod has turned Shakespeare's King John into a swaggering mafioso and Philip, the illegitimate son of John's brother, Richard the Lionhearted, into a bold, cheeky outsider with one eye on the main chance and the other cynically assessing the corruption of the medieval ruling classes. The conception works brilliantly, helped by crisp, fine-tuned portrayals by Ned Eisenberg and Derek Smith, who head up a stellar cast.

It is 1199 and King Richard has just died. His younger brother John (Eisenberg) is made king, but French King Philip (Mark Vietor) demands the crown for Arthur (Michael Ray Escamilla), the son of Geoffrey, John's dead brother. The two brothers Falconbridge arrive at court with an inheritance dispute. John's mother Eleanor (Myra Carter) recognizes one (Smith) as the bastard son of Richard -- thus her grandson. He joins John's war party against the French.

At Angiers, the English and French battle, with no winner. The message of the play is the absurdity and low dealings in the fight over land and power. These are not noble princes, they are corrupt manipulators, and conflicts are not about honor, but real estate. John says, "France, shall we knit our powers and lay this Angiers even to the ground, then, after, fight who shall be king of it?"

Hubert (Michael Rogers), a local citizen seeking to save his city, proposes that John's niece Blanche (Katie MacNichol) marry King Philip's son Louis (Bruce Turk). John would give the French land as a dowery. But when John refuses the Pope's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury, he is excommunicated, and the French King, under threat of excommunication, himself returns to battle. John's forces take Arthur prisoner, and the king orders him killed. Hubert fails to carry out the order, but the false news of his death leads John's own lords to revolt and join the French. The religious and temporal powers alliances keep shifting, emphasizing the duplicity of these "high" characters.

It's a mad world, opines the Bastard: "Mad world! mad kings! mad composition! John, to stop Arthur's title in the whole, hath willingly departed with a part, and France, whose armor conscience buckled on, whom zeal and charity brought to the field as God's own soldier...."

His monologue continues with a cynical paen to "commodity (ie. money), the bias of the world," ending with the assertion that "whiles I am a beggar, I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich; and being rich, my virtue then shall be to say there is no vice but beggary. Since kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee."

From this play comes the Bastard's famous "Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back, when gold and silver becks me to come on." The phrase is a reference to the church.

And there's also the protest of Constance (Pamela Nyberg), the mother of Arthur, the thwarted claimant to the throne, "France is a bawd to Fortune and King John, That strumpet Fortune, that usurping John!"

Follow the money, Shakespeare might have said.

The feel is utterly modern, though this is not a play in modern dress, except for the Bastard. Designer P.K. Wish has put the court characters in clattering chain mail over a man's blue or brown shirt and slacks or a lady's gown. But the men wear pointy shoes of the style favored by the modern cinematic underworld. The Bastard, to show how out of his element he is among the lords, has an unkempt shock of black hair and wears black pants, a blue sweater and cowboy boots.

The modern take is achieved with subtle gestures. Eisenberg invokes the street-corner hood as he stands nervously jiggling his leg. Holding his hands thumbs up, and sending a message to the pope through his emissary, he sneers, "No Italian priest shall tithe or toll in our dominions...So tell the pope, all reverence set apart to him and his usurp'd authority." No one muscles in on his territory. The word Italian is said with a mocking New York accent. John thrusts a knife for emphasis as if it were a hooligan's shiv. When he rages, it's the fury of a thug.

Derek Smith is cocky and frenetic; he mocks the snootiness of the court with his body language. At one point, he collapses on the floor, railing in frustration. He stands offstage, part of the audience, leaning against a side wall, arms-crossed, watching the Pope's emissary (Nicholas Kepros) play out his cynical game. (The envoy delivers a message that is a tongue twister of gobbledygook.) The bastard is our connection to the events of the play, which Coonrod emphasizes by have him occasionally sitting or standing with the viewers to watch the action.

Coonrod has deliciously underlined the humiliation visited by the Pope's emissary by having him deliberately lower his hand as King John bends to kiss his ring.

There's also a wonderful bit where MacNichol as Blanche, King John's niece, makes it clear in asides what she thinks of the marriage he is arranging with Louis, son of Philip of France. Pamela Nyberg is a stirring, driven Constance bubbling with fire, then distraught, bitter and hysterically grief-stricken at John's perfidy. Myra Carter establishes a clear presence for Eleanor as John's spunky mother. The bald Duke of Austria (Glenn Fleshler), who killed Coeur de Lyon, has the gait and demeanor of a wrestler, with the pelt he wears reminding one of the outrageous garb those athlete-entertainers affect. Michael Ray Escamilla is very good as Philip's spooky legitimate half-brother and also as the timid Arthur.

The theater in the round has no scenery except for a thin metal stool. The actors at times climb a black metal circular staircase or walk along the catwalk that's part of the house. But Christopher Akerlind's lighting provides all the changes of mood and perception one could demand and also allows Coonrod to maintain a fast pace as shifts in light and darkness allow actors to arrive and depart to and from the wings or the aisles. A wide lighted glass strip in the floor pulls you into the center of action.

Ben Neill's music enhances the ambiance, sometimes hitting one like an approaching train. The actors rattling chain mail increases the sense of the surreal.

Louis the Dauphin complains, "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale." Not so this one as retold by Coonrod.

"The Alchlemist"
by Ben Jonson, directed by Barry Edelstein
Produced by the Classic Stage Company
136 East 13 Street
677-4210 ext 2
Opened February 17, 2000
Closes March 12, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar February 14, 2000
I like to imagine Ben Jonson seeing Barry Edelstein's vision of his 1610 play "The Alchemist" and rolling over in his grave -- laughing. This play is a hoot, from beginning to end, a hokey, slapstick rendition of a satire about a gaggle of charlatans who share with their marks a desire for easy riches. Edelstein, putting the work into very modern dress, shows that he is a brilliant comic director with a particular talent for reinventing the classics. He did so last year in a exceedingly clever production of Moliere's "The Misanthrope."

In "The Alchemist," three con-men have persuaded various gullible, greedy townsfolk that they can turn base metal into gold and perform other remarkable feats to advance wealth and sexual conquest. For a generous fee. Face (Jeremy Shamos) is the butler of the house of operations, whose owner has conveniently left town out of fear of the plague. Subtle (Dan Castellaneta) is the phony alchemist and Dol Common (Johann Carlo), a prostitute, is at various times in the ruse a queen of the fairies and a garish sex-pot. Their names, of course, are part of the joke.

The "gulls" include Dapper (Michael Showalter), a law clerk with a penchant for gambling, a druggist (Hillel Meltzer) who needs advice for his shop, and Sir Epicure Mammon (Lee Sellars) whose interest runs to money, food and women. Other dupes are a couple of Protestant pastors who want to "counterfeit coin for the brethren" and Kastril "the angry boy" (Reuben Jackson) and his widowed sister Dame Pliant (Yaani King) who's in the market for a rich husband.

The 17th century text has been trimmed of about 900 lines. Edelstein says that of the 2,500 that remain, 98 percent are exactly what Jonson wrote. What's left is not simply a broad farce, but a subtle commentary on the times -- Jonson's and ours. When Face offers to turn his andirons into gold and silver, and Epicure declares, "I care not for silver," Face replies, "To give beggars." (To be so rich that silver is like pennies. Like the $100 bill that lights a mogul's cigar.) There are some liberties taken with the text. A Latin incantation includes the words quid pro quo, pro bono, e plurbus unum, and deus ex machina.

There's plenty of liberty taken with the production. The alchemist draws chalk chemistry lesson diagrams on a door. The scribbles include the signs for male and female. A skeptic later scrawls, "Bull shit!" When Dol Common, in red plastic jacket, matching platform shoes, slit skirt and high blonde wig, makes an entrance down a factory-style metal staircase, she sashays to the words and music of "Hello Dolly."

The modern over-the-top mood is matched by designer Michael Krass's deliciously outrageous costumes, including black leather & chains, an underground worker's orange coveralls and back-pack oxygen, a ball gown so like the proverbial dress-decked-out-like-a-Xmas tree that it has colored lights, and much more. The widow and her brother are laid-back street folks, he with a big afro, cargo pants and silver chains, she in gold boots and a white mink.

Adrianne Lobel has supplied a comically inventive set, with a collection of smoking and bubbling red, green and white flasks and bowls from your typical horror movie, a plastic shower curtain room divider, and a fridge from which characters at times pull out cans of beer they throw to their confreres to toast a good scam. The second-level entrance to the house is an alley lined with metal garbage cans, plastic bags, and tied newspapers. Noise and music are summoned up by hand-held remotes.

The cast is excellent. The actors relish their roles, playing each character to the fullest. Castellaneta, the alchemist, in a purple chenille robe and beret, appears as a driven neurotic. Shamos, who has the edge of a prankster out for a lark, switches seamlessly between guises as a swaggering captain and a hunched-over slave. And Carlo is a wonderfully tough in-your-face whore, the most realistic of the three.

Hillel Meltzer is terrifically clownish as the sad, nebbishy druggist in black sneakers, wool cap and walkman earphones, whose questions about shop design gets him advice that sounds like feng shui. Lee Sellars is perfect as Sir Epicure Mammon. With his white vest and fantasies of voluptuous sex life and menus, he seems conjured out of the East Side and the Hamptons.

Matthew Saldivar does excellent double duty as Pertinax Surly in black leather, slicked back hair, Hispanic street accent and swagger -- and then as the exaggeratedly hokey Spanish count with white ruff, red cape, black eye-patch. Umit Celebi is a wonderfully gloomy pastor, aptly named "Tribulation Wholesome." The dissident deacon (Steve Rattazzi), who Jonson, with 17th century verisimilitude specified is from Amsterdam, speaks of course with a Dutch accent.

The Angry Boy (Jonson's designation!), cast as a rapping, shuffling, jiving street kid, is perfectly played by a comically loose Reuben Jackson. And Yaani King is very funny as his sister, with a New York manner and squeal you'd recognize on the subway.

In fact, beyond the disguises, you'd recognize everybody in this play. Which, of course, is what Jonson had in mind. He would have liked the outrageous costumes, too. In 1618, visited the poet, William Drummon, who later recalled about the playwright: "He, with the consent of a friend, cozened a lady with whom he had made an appointment to meet an old astrologer in the suburbs, which she kept; and it was himself disguised in a long gown and a white beard in the light of a dim-burning candle, up in a little cabinet reached into by a ladder."

"King Lear"
by William Shakespeare, directed by Robert Richmond
Produced by Aquila Theatre Company
Clark Studio Theatre, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza
Opened November 25, 1999
Closed in NY; on national tour
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 4, 1999
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" laments King Lear in this brilliantly stylized and abstract production by the London/New York Aquila Theatre Company. In a curious way, director/adapter Robert Richmond, by cutting the play to highlight bare emotion, has made it more accessible to audiences. This is more a play about the deadly rivalry of parents and siblings than one about an imaginary British king. When Lear asks Edgar, disguised as a beggar, "Hast thou given all to thy two daughters? And art thou come to this?" he has a pronounced contemporary British accent that conjures up a fellow commiserating with a beggar in some London slum.

In the tradition of the "Theatre de Complicite," Aquila says its mission is to present fresh, inventive productions of the classics, freeing the spirit of the original works. This difficult task is made immeasurably easier by the presence of some extraordinary acting talent, including several former members of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It is worth seeing Aquila's "Lear" if only to watch the amazing performance of Anthony Cochrane as the king. In his pacing, scowling, fluttering despair and anger, he has as many sounds as an orchestra and is in every slightest move and gesture a king.

The styling is abstract but also familiar, with portentous background music of the sort you hear at movies. (The talented Cochrane is also composer and musical director.) The actors don't just walk onto the stage. They pace as in a procession moving in geometric angles around and across the painted white square, sometimes stopping as if they were sculptures. Troops clap and laugh in unison or mime shouting. Three knights battle with long sticks as if in a slow ballet.

The story, of course, is that Lear has given his kingdom to two daughters Goneril (Tracey Mitchell) and Regan (Lisa Carter) who sucked up to him, promising love and fealty above that to their husbands. He cuts off Cordelia (Lisa Carter) who tells the truth about being only a dutiful daughter. Then the duplicitous Goneril and Regan plot against their father and each other.

Edgar (Grant Goodman) and Edmund (Kenn Sabberton) the legitimate and bastard sons of the Earl of Gloucester (Jens Martin Krummel) are also at odds, with Edgar's careless slight (he can't remember Edmund's name) offering a subtle example of the snubs that fire Edmund's desire for power and revenge.

Cordelia goes off to marry the King of France (Grand Goodman). He and the Duke of Burgundy (Louis Butelli) speak with appropriately comic French accents. The truth-telling, cockney-speaking loyal Earl of Kent (Sabberton) is banished, and, as is the wont in Shakespeare's tragedies, a lot of dead bodies pile up before the good guys return in justice and triumph.

Robert Richmond directs a riveting scene in which Lear, in his night shirt, and clearly disintegrating, interacts with his deformed fool, given a stunning performance by Louis Butelli, his twisted face and body exuding anguish. Both Lear and the fool are bald, and as they interact, Lear seems to metamorphose into his fool.

Keeping up with the standard set by Cochrane, Kenn Sabberton is brilliant as both Edmund and Kent, creating so much sinister darkness in one and light in the other that one has to look in the program to realize the same actor is playing both parts. Jens Martin Krummel is strong as Gloucester and Lisa Carter is properly sharp and devious as Regan.

Christianne Myers costumes are of the period, with soldiers in breast plates and helmets of Spanish conquistadors. Though there's no set beyond a wooden table with legs that collapse to be hut or hill, lighting by Peter Meineck and Richmond supply golden rivers of light or mist that establish the mood. Nothing more is required.

"The Iliad"
by Homer, directed by Robert Richmond
Produced by Aquila Theatre Company
Clark Studio Theatre, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza
Opened November 22, 1999
Closed in NY; on national tour
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar January 8, 1999
Achilles demands, "What do I get for all my suffering, putting my life on the line? Fighting men for their wives. Why did the Greeks have to fight the Trojans?" Did Agamemnon lead the army to Troy to capture women? he wonders. "I wouldn't lift a finger in this bloody war?"

The Aquila Theatre Company takes Homer's 800 BC epic poem about the last year of the Greek's ten-year war with Troy and, with Stanley Lombardo's trenchant translation, turns it into a relevant modern political play. It is anti-war and it is feminist.

It is also stunning, stirring and memorable. If one could see one piece of theater this year, if one wanted to know theater as a transforming artistic experience, one would see this production.

Director Robert Redmond has created a dazzling pastiche of stylized movement, light and sound, a dance pageant in slow motion, soldiers walking, rolling over the ground as light plays over them in the dim smoky shadows. Purple light highlights dark forms; flickering strobes turn them into phantoms.

The eerie sounds of bombers rumble overhead, or is it the thunder of the gods? Maybe it's the staccato sound of a machine gun. There are screams of Greeks dying, sounds of soldiers coughing from gas. The characters sing prayers as if in church; they dedicate Greek dances to the gods.

Some wear World War II fatigues and helmets, blankets and gas masks. Others don the civilian garb of simple workers or peasants -- women with scarves, a man with a worker's cap.

The set is four gray plastic bins that will be tombstones, a ship, Mt. Olympus, the throne of Zeus, perhaps rubble or a foxhole.

Soldiers carry small spades and move on their knees, their eyes piercing the darkness. One with a knife threatens a captive.

This is no far away epic poem; this is real, gritty war. The men fight over conquests. Achilles (Anthony Cochrane) complains, "When we sack some Trojans, you get the lion's share." There are even corny puns: Zeus (Kenn Sabberton) complains, "You're going to force me into conflict with Hera. I can just hear 'a now." His wife Hera (Tracey Mitchell) is a scold.

The cast is uncommonly sensitive and talented. Louis Butelli as Agamemnon, in his blanket, great coat and black beret, is terrifically arrogant and mocking. Anthony Cochrane is an angry, tough, defiant Achilles who powerfully displays a humanity forged in the horror of war. Kenn Saberton is excellent and comically ironic as Nestor and Zeus. And the women, Shauna Cooper, Tracy Mitchell and Lisa Carter, sharply embody the female challenge to war as Greek heroines and victims.

The Aquila Company, ten years old, has toured Europe, the U.S. and Canada, and is presently halfway through a 55-city tour of America. Its members include Brits and Americans, and it is based in both London and New York. It has become the resident company of the New York University Center for Ancient Studies, for which New Yorkers should be grateful. This is the most exhilarating, inventive theater company that has put down roots here in many years.

by William Shakespeare, directed by Andrei Serban
Produced by The Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Street
Opened December 19, 1999
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 18, 1999
Andrei Serban's production of "Hamlet" is a surreal melange that swathes the play in modern sensibility and artifacts to paint an impressionist, timeless vision of Shakespeare's story. Sometimes the results skirt the absurd, but overall, the staging is clever, lively, amusing and entertaining. This is a Hamlet in which you wonder what is going to happen next!

A workman comes onstage with a smoke machine to pump out fog, and a ghost appears in silvery armor. Then another ghost in white bridal garb. And a third covered in red. If Hamlet's father is making a ghostly appearance, he might just as well morph into different visions.

The new king (Colm Feore) is preening, and someone is painting his portrait, one of the perks of the post. Playing two roles, Colm Feore's shifts dexterously between the insouciantly evil King Claudius to the mournful late king's ghost.

Hamlet (Liev Schreiber) is dressed in black, but barefoot. He's miserable. His father has just been killed and his mother (Diana Venora) has married his uncle. His face is puffy; he looks like he's going to throw up. He takes a drink from a gold chalice, goes over to a pile of rocks, and throws up. Liev Schreiber's Hamlet is brilliantly real. He is not crazy, but vengeful, powerful, full of emotional intensity.

Sometimes Serban's conception is rather jokey. A face with a fez hat appears at a window in the castle wall and peers at Hamlet through binoculars. Another spy gazing down from an upper platform takes notes on a pad. They reappear to spy from time to time. Once, Hamlet spots them and waves. When Laertes (Hamish Linklater) goes off to France, his servant carries his elegant matching leather luggage.

Other times, the fresh meanings Serban finds in Shakespeare's words are ironic. When Hamlet questions Rosencrantz (Jeremy Shamos) and Guildenstern (Jonathan Fried), they giggle and appear dopey. They are the backdrop for Hamlet's comment, "What a piece of work is man!"

Or Serban's take is deft, if surprising. The king, in a puff-sleeved red velvet jacket, black pants and boots, lingers in a doorway kissing his new wife passionately. When she follows him out to the stage, we see her barefoot and wrapped in a bedsheet. Diane Venora gives affecting authority and substance to the queen.

Sometimes Serban's ideas are good but the execution not altogether successful. The story of the murder of Hamlet's father begins with an Indonesian-style shadow puppet snake and continues with a pantomiming naked Adam and Eve behind a screen, but the figures lack grace.

The production occasionally goes off the deep end, as when Polonius (Richard Libertini), after bestowing advice on the departing Laertes ("to thine own self be true," etc.) gives him and his sister Ophelia (Lynn Collins) ice cream cones. It also seems "out of joint" when he speaks his soliloquy into a tape recorder. It's funny but silly when Polonius declares, "I will be brief," and the king and queen clap.

Serban has created a fantastical circus. A traveling player (Francis Jue) floats in on a wire. Later, Osric the courtier (also Jue) arrives on a trapeze and turns flips. The gravedigger (George Morfogen) is in white clown suit with black pointed hat; the skull he carries also has a pointy cap. Another clown in red juggles bones.

When Hamlet declares, "There be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise" who, he declares "imitated humanity so abominably," the cast comes out carrying posters of past "Hamlets" played by other actors -- and one poster of the current show with Schreiber. Serban says he wants to make the point that this isn't Denmark, it's the theater. Shadow theater, vaudeville, circus. Sometimes he seems also to be saying that this isn't tragedy, it's a spoof.

Some of the liberties are substantial, but don't harm the play. Hamlet delivers his "To be or not to be" speech, with Ophelia present, fainted on the ground. He puts the knife he carries to their joined wrists. The player cast as the king in the play-within-a-play starts coughing, and Hamlet persuades his uncle to take his place. It all works, as if it were a new play pulled out of the old play.

This is a very physical production. Movements are often dance-like. Much of it takes place on the ground. The accents are all, of course, very much in the vernacular.

The secondary roles are generally handled well. Hamish Linklater's Laertes shows anger bursting from his insides. Christian Camargo plays Horatio with clarity and directness. However, Ophelia and Polonius are overacted by Lynn Collins and Richard Libertini.

Marina Draghici's costumes are a combination of styles and eras, from the king's black tunic and coat and crossed red bands across his chest that remind one of science fictional garb to the gold dresses and black crenellated collars and fezes worn by the king's courtiers. After Hamlet kills Polonius, he wears a bloody butcher's apron. When Ophelia goes mad, she is restrained in a metal chastity harness.

The stark set by John Coyne has a tall, splotched backdrop colored silver or gold by the lighting. Atop it is a walkway, and cut into the wall are sliding doors and latched windows. In the center of the stage is a pit, which in the second act is filled with white sand.

Elizabeth Swados's other worldly synthesizer music provides the perfect finishing touch. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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