Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Empty Chair Theatre Measure for Measure & King Lear

By • Jul 13th, 2009 • Category: Reviews
Measure for Measure and King Lear (playing in repertory)
Empty Chair Theatre
H-B Woodlawn School, Arlington, VA
$10/$5 Students
Measure for Measure: Playing through July 18th
King Lear: Playing through July 18th
Reviewed July 11th, 2009

Arlington’s Empty Chair Theatre is offering a full plate. Its two current productions are not a light summer picnic. No, no — the menu offers a pair of Shakespeare’s most difficult-to-digest plays: King Lear and Measure for Measure. The former is the darkest and heaviest of tragedies. The latter is an equivocal and mirthless comedy.

Both productions are absorbing. Measure for Measure, however, is a lumpy puzzle that director Elizabeth Nearing never smooths out and only half solves. But Kate Logan‘s King Lear functions nicely as an intimate chamber version of a vast, cosmic drama.

Complicating the remorseless complexity of Lear is the paradoxical relationship between the play and the Empty Chair company, which consists of theater artists aged 14-24. The play, however, deals with grueling issues of aging and the elderly. The title character in Lear is an old man on the edge of senility. A parallel subplot features the king’s contemporary, a duke who ironically is blind when he has eyes and “sees” (in the sense of understanding) once his eyes have horrifyingly been torn out right in front of us on stage.

Adding further peculiarity to Empty Chair director Logan’s Lear is the casting. The central old man is played by a young woman. And a supposedly irresistible hot hunk bad boy — the foolish duke’s evil son — is played by a sassy female, Julia Sears. When lusty ladies (the king’s two villainous daughters) paw and fight over the hunk’s bod, the point is not out-of-control lesbianism. It is, “Hey, this is acting. Actors act. Women play men. Get used to it. What is theater about, anyway, other than suspension of disbelief?”

OK. So be it. Whatever. Clearly Natasha Solomon, as Lear, is not just a promising young actor. She really is very good, modulating back and forth, in and out of dotage, vehemence, rage, confusion, compassion and sorrow. As the nasty hunk, Sears at least has conviction and commitment. When it comes time for hot kisses on the lips of a female-in-heat, Sears is right there for a torrid clinch.

In general, Logan’s young cast punches up issues of parents and children, sisters and brothers. They handle the ornate poetry of Shakespeare’s dialogue fairly well, and what they lack in polished articulation they make up in forceful emotion.

A nice directorial touch: the show begins with a lovely folk/pop anthem, with actors singing and playing guitars, violins and a ukulele. The song expresses a yearning for candor and understanding. All is harmony and solidarity; an excellent dramatic foil for two hours of almost unalloyed antagonism, violence and greed.

As for Measure for Measure, it quite rightly takes its place (along with Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well that Ends Well) among what scholars refer to as Shakespeare’s “problem plays.” The problem is that these plays don’t readily make sense. Characters have either no motivation at all or only scant reasons for their bizarre actions. Plot twists are absurd. Situations are implausible. Audience dissatisfaction is almost inevitable.

In Measure for Measure the duke of Vienna abandons his duties and goes incognito here and there throughout his city. Acting as his substitute ruler is a vicious schizophrenic. Which is appropriate in a way. The duke himself is schizoid, but not altogether vicious.

And so a (fairly) innocent man is condemned to death for having sex with his fiancee. The condemned man’s sister, who aspires to be a nun, begs the Duke’s surrogate for mercy. The surrogate offers the seriously virginal sister a deal: her brother’s life in exchange for her maidenhead. Oh! The horror! — that is the prissy sister’s reaction.

Meanwhile…well, suffice it to say the sequence of bizarre actions, absurd plot twists, unmotivated behavior and and implausible situations goes on and on, finally petering out only after two hours have gone by.

Director Nearing partially resolves this problem play’s problems by emphasizing the duke’s insanity. Kelley Van Dilla, in that role, takes erratic personality traits to the limit, He twitches, he chuckles, he halts, he stares, he wrings his hands, he walks about like a precariously balanced windup toy. Mark Tucker, as the psychotic surrogate duke, is a schizophrenic who coolly rationalizes lunacy and proceeds as a slick and amoral sociopath.

The rest of Nearing’s cast struggle along in the wake of these two, striving to make sense of a largely senseless situation.

Nearing tosses in some attractive song-and-dance sequences that build to orgiastic frenzies. While these moments are welcome as distractions from an unfunny comedy, they only add to the Empty Chair production’s quality of incoherence and indigestion.

Measure for Measure is truly troublesome. I’ve seen productions that have worked fairly well, however. One of these was set in fascist Italy, a time and a place when and where insanity, hypocrisy and corruption really did have the force of law. Another successful production presented the characters as technology-saturated automatons who had the emotional intelligence of a laptop. Measure for Measure can work on stage. The Empty Chair show, however, works only haltingly.

At the risk of sounding patronizing or condescending, I feel compelled to add a modifying observation: Whatever the merits or faults of its shows, it is genuinely thrilling to see young people devoting themselves with tremendous discipline to old theater. Add to that the throng of under 30 groupies who fill the Empty Chair audience and you add a new and optimistic twist to the gloomy refrain, “Kids today, I just don’t know…”

Note: Empty Chair performs in a small room called “The Black Box.” The place might also be called “The Hot Box.” If you go to see these shows, dress lightly. Once the 200-degree stage lights and the 100-degree cast and audience bodies combine their forces, the space really heats up.

Cast for King Lear

  • Kent: Caroline Brent
  • Albany: Mark Guthrie
  • Goneril: Lee Havlicek
  • Gloucester: Matthew Minnicino
  • Oswald/Burgundy: Amalia Oswald
  • Edmund: Julia Sears
  • Regan/Knight 1: Samantha Sheahan
  • King Lear: Natasha Solomon
  • Cordelia/Knight 4/Servant 1/Old Man: Rebecca Speas
  • Cornwall/Knight 2/Doctor: Mark Tucker
  • Edgar: Kelley Van Dilla
  • Fool/France/Servant 3/Captain: Nico Zevallos
    • Cast for Measure for Measure

      • Abhorson/Juliet/Servant/Francisca: Caroline Brent
      • Lucio/Justice: Mark Guthrie
      • Marina/Attendants: Lee Havlicek
      • Claudio/Elbow: Matthew Minnicino
      • Mistress Overdone/Froth/Friar Peter: Amalia Oswald
      • Isabella: Julia Sears
      • Escalus/Friar Thomas: Samantha Sheahan
      • Messengers/Servants/Gentlemen: Natasha Solomon
      • Provost: Rebecca Speas
      • Angelo: Mark Tucker
      • Duke Vincentio: Kelley Van Dilla
      • Pompey: Nico Zevallos
      Measure for Measure (Mark Tucker as Angelo and Julia Sears as Isabella) King Lear (Natasha Soloman as King Lear and Kelley Van Dilla as Edgar)
      Measure for Measure (Mark Tucker as Angelo and Julia Sears as Isabella)
      King Lear (Natasha Soloman as King Lear and Kelley Van Dilla as Edgar)
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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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