Sunday, February 06, 2011

Recalling Peter Wallace's Lear

Given the ephemeral nature of the live theatre, old actors have a tendency to recall past productions the way grizzled warriors recall campaigns from the distant past. Acknowledging this, we give you fair warning that this post might be of very limited appeal: a dreaded theatre memoir. It is also a pathetic effort at documenting, however scantily, an interesting work that to my knowledge was not photographed or documented.

What started these rocks moving around my head was reading Gielgud's rambling memoir about his career working with Shakespeare, and his recollections of King Lear. Among other challenges, the play presents the challenge of staging the epic storm against which Lear rages. Gielgud recalls a few productions, including the Peter Brook production where the storm was simulated in an imaginative style, using ropes.

In 1992 (I think), Peter Wallace directed a Lear in New York City that very few people saw, because the venue was small and its ensemble were all undergraduates in Wallace's theatre department at the New School. The space was a peculiar atrium in the student center, sky-lit and open yet stony, grey, and cold, surrounded by grey pillars that supported the roof dome.

Wallace is no longer at the college, and I've lost track of him, though I did see his production of The Sound and the Fury when he brought it to Providence in 1998 or 1999, which was quite good and generated some buzz.

It is regrettable that our Lear was not documented in any way -- I do not even know if any photographs were taken -- as it was quite interesting. Wallace created an ensemble piece in which Lear was attended by a large chorus of us, echoing the convictions howling in his mind. The young actor playing Lear was Eli Bishop, the son of theatre artists Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller of The Independent Eye. Eli had very long blonde hair, and was a wraith-like figure in those days, lean and fragile, yet he spoke in an impressive baritone. Though he was quite young in the role, he conveyed such a sense of weariness and unspeakable sadness that, of all us twenty-somethings in the cast, he had to be Lear.

The cast was full of interesting people including Vanessa Gilbert of the Perishable Theatre, who played Kent. Mike Doughty was doing a lot of theatre at the college during that time, but he sat this one out. He was around so much, however, it almost feels like he was in the cast. Rachel Benbow Murdy (click that link, the interview is so delightfully like Rachel in person, and she has scarcely aged a year since I knew her) might have been Peter's assistant director on this project, but I'm not sure about that. I played Edmund and was probably awful -- really didn't know what to do with myself in those days.

There was no verse work in that production at all. This is not really Peter's fault, he just did not have the time or the inclination to teach us, and there was no one else around to do it. I did not learn how to speak verse until I met Julia Carey and Carol Gill at Trinity Rep Conservatory, years later.

Anyway, the storm. We had this open space that was all stone, and we built no set -- in some ways, we were quoting the RSC MacBeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench (a famous production from the 1970s), performing on no set surrounded by the ensemble. When it came time for the storm, Peter Wallace handed us all a pair of wooden dowels. We sat on the floor and plinked the floor with these rods, and found they made quite a racket. With some practice we were able to modulate from the first drops of rain to the storm in full wrath, while being careful not to drown out the text.

It was a mise-en-scene that served the play and the space quite well, and made for quite an interesting performance of that play. In spite of our inexperience as performers, the play and Lear's agony came to life in a way that moved many audience members to tears -- and me. The play makes me weep to this day, even on the page.

[Photo: Eugene Lang College main building on 11th Street between 5th and 6th in New York City. The atrium theatre space was not in this building, but this is where I took acting classes with Anthony Abeson, a passionate teacher whom I drove crazy.]

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