First Nighter: Arin Arbus's King Lear, David Herskovitz's Uriel Acosta

Plays are revelations. Good plays, that is, and the better a play, the more revelatory it can be. And let's just say King Lear -- now at Theatre For a New Audience with Arin Arbus directing Michael Pennington in the title role -- easily falls into the better-play category.

In a solid (not to say stolid) production, which this interpretation is, the revelations flourish. The tale isn't altered, though, of a king who foolishly cuts his kindest daughter Cordelia (Lilly Englert) out of his announced will while dividing his kingdom between conniving daughters Goneril (Rachel Pickup) and Regan (Bianca Amato) and their respective husbands Albany (Graham Winton) and Cornwall (Saxon Palmer).

The king's spiraling into madness as a result of his monumental gaffe remains the same as he travels with his not at all foolish Fool (Jake Horowitz) and his knights. The play's matching misstep stays the same for Lear's right-hand man Gloucester (Christopher McCann), hoodwinked by bastard son Edmund (Chandler Williams) into believing that upright son Edgar (Jacob Fishel) is behind a conspiracy.

In other words, Arbus has trimmed little. On Riccardo Hernandez's minimalist rust-colored set (that seems heavily influenced by Richard Serra's towering sculptures), she's supervised instead myriad revelations -- invaluable approaches to characters, to speeches and to individual lines.

Take Pennington, who's giving Lear a good run for his money. When Goneril and Regan assail him over the number of knights he requires, and Regan asks, "What need one?" he doesn't head immediately into a rant on the "O reason not the need" aria. Instead, he begins reasonably and builds his anger from there. It's as if he's using the lines to foreshadow a relatively reasonable man's shift into extreme disorientation.

Perhaps the single line Pennington utters that struck me as highly insightful was spoken when he'd been reduced to madness or near madness on the stormy heath and suddenly brings himself up with the self-admonitory "Take physique, pomp!" It's an incisive indication that Lear has at last noticed the difference between his plight and the "poor naked wretches" with whom he's newly come in contact. Put another way, it's as if someone chatting about the 47 percent suddenly realizes what he's just said.

As for Amato's "What need one?" she doesn't spit it out, as is usually done, but takes her time, giving the impression she wants that each word cuts to the bone. And when Goneril attacks Albany with "Your manhood, mew!" she does it with a more cruel sting than I'm used to hearing.

Because Arbus's actors speak with notable lucidity, they're adept at polishing the many pungent phrases even as they invigorate the characters they're taking on. Is it just me, or did Williams deliver Edmund's initial speech about bastardy with such sardonic good humor that his declaration about humanity's blaming its faults on the gods suddenly sounded like a companion comment to Cassius's speech in Julius Caesar that goes, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves that we are underlings"?

Yes, it's Shakespeare repeating himself thematically.

What I'm saying is that the cast, with only a single exception, is strong. Plus there's one remarkable performance--Fishel as Edgar. A lean, good-looking lad, Fishel plays Edgar's early scenes as a good kid, openly fond of his brother. Masquerading as Poor Tom on the heath, he retains that warmth and decency.

With all the references to nature Shakespeare throws into his iambic pentameters, it's Fishel who's the embodiment of natural. His bio reports that at Julliard he received the John Houseman Prize for Excellence in Classical Theatre. This performance stands as proof positive that he deserved it.

Also commendable are Timothy D. Stickney as the loyal Earl of Kent, Mark H. Dold as Goneril's insolent attendant Oswald, McCann's Gloucester and Horowitz as the Fool. Horowitz carries a colorful concertina and often punctuates his acerbic jokes with a crisp note or two. When the Fool (who hangs himself in this undertaking!) is gone, Lear carries the instrument -- a clever metaphor for Lear's finally acquiring the Fool's sagacity.

Ordinarily, I'd skip past a deficient performance with only a brief remark, but I regret to say I can't dismiss Englert's portrayal quite so quickly. Earlier this season, she was Hermia in TFANA's Julie Taymor-directed Midsummer Night's Dream and reduced her speeches to mush. Not exactly excusable but less of an effrontery in the role of a giddy young women.

But Cordelia! Here's a thoughtful daughter who responds to her father's request that she declare her love for him by saying, "I cannot heave my heart into my mouth." Englert's large problem is she cannot get her words out of her mouth. Much better luck next time.

As Shakespeare lovers and maybe plain old theater lovers know, we're in the midst of a King Lear splurge. Frank Langella was present and accounted for a few months ago at BAM. Simon Russell Beale's stupendous take, only now closing at London's Olivier, will be shown nationally in HD on May 1 and other dates. John Lithgow's bid shows up in Central Park this summer.

The Arbus-Pennington go isn't the best I've seen, but it's very, very far from the worst. Certainly, Marcus Doshi's lighting and Michael Attias's sound are a huge contribution. (Their storm collaboration is ear-and-eye-popping.) At any rate, this one is well worth visiting for all the illuminating reasons mentioned above.


In his program note for Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!, at The Chocolate Factory in Queens, Target Margin artistic director David Herskovitz explains that different versions of Karl Gutzkow's 1846 play about the 17th-century Jewish philosopher exist. He says that since it's been fiddled with many times during the century and a half, no definitive version exists. So his variation on the popular Yiddish theater piece draws on as many sources as he could unearth, to which he adds his own notions.

I won't claim I know exactly what Herskovitz is saying from moment to moment about the wages of religious doubt and fervor. I only got concrete facts under my belt when I researched the searching-searching-searching Acosta, an exiled Spanish Marrano who was born Gabriel Da Costa, changed his name and spent the rest of his haunted and hunted days in Amsterdam.

That Acosta wrangled with his beliefs does come across loud and clear in the 75 minutes Herskovitz tells it with the eager assistance of four actors -- Don Castro, James Tigger! Ferguson, Mary Rasmussen and J. H. Smith III. The four of them go about their folderol in Buck Rogers outfits complete with tallis-like capes. I may not have been following every plot point, but the amusing theatrical surprises keep coming and include tiny stage replicas made and manipulated by Kathleen Kennedy Tobin.

Maybe the most delightful amenities are smoke blasts released from a pipe hanging horizontally over the gallivanting players. As the smoke clouds float, faces and the occasion word in Hebrew are projected on them and seem to suggest that everything, including the knowable truth about Acosta and art, is ephemeral.