Judging by appearances, he's kindly and avuncular; the very image of an aging and benevolent father. But what finally sends that long, slow and hard chill down your spine are three ever-so-gradual revelations. First, he absolutely can't be trusted. In his current misfortune, he's actually reaping what he's already sown. And though we're allowed to glimpse a fraction of the evil that he's done, truly, we know nowhere near the worst of it.
But who am I talking about? Actor John Honeycutt's enigmatic Salter, in Caryl Churchill's tense thriller A Number at Raleigh Ensemble Players? Or Eddie Levi Lee's title character in Peace College's King Lear? Here's your answer: Both.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of director Kenny Gannon's KING LEAR is this: The laws of cause and effect have not been suspended in it. Inarguably, productions down the ages have goosed the tragic element of Shakespeare's most challenging script by insisting on the sheer contingency of its main plot points. "Who knew," we've heard them wail, time and again, "that two daughters would turn so viciously on their dear old dad? Who foresaw that the thoughts of a son so slighted would turn toward revenge?" But a funny thing has happened since the fortunes of American forces have reversed in Iraq and Afghanistan: Our era has lost most of its patience with the phrase "Who knew?"
Where most productions content themselves with plotting the trajectory of the royal family beginning with Act I, Scene 1, Gannon and Lee have clearly traced their arcs a considerable distance backward from that point as well. From the start, it's clear that Lear and siblings Cordelia, Regan and Goneril (Melissa Folckemer, Sarah Thomas and Kristal DeSantis) already have a considerable history with each other. It does not seem a particularly pleasant one.
The chill of the opening scene speaks not only to the present diplomatic dog and pony show, where conspicuously joyless daughters are trotted out to perform and make nice in front of visiting dignitaries: It discloses as well a series of demeaning recitals before this.
The seeds of Lear's fall have been planted, years before; the observant can see them sprouting everywhere in this initial moment. The iciness in his initial photo opportunities with Goneril and Regan will be returned—and intensified—in their ultimate replies to him. The contempt with which Lear regards those beneath him at the start will be returned, in spades, when he himself is disempowered.
Gannon gives the Fool (Melissa Maxwell) assorted—if dubious—Broadway show tunes like "Mack the Knife" to entertain the troops at various points. (Given the truths of this production, one more should have been considered: Sondheim's "Children Will Listen," from Into the Woods.) By the opening of this Lear, the children have listened, and observed, with acuity, the ethics, mood swings and presumptions of power as a game without frontiers. As a result, at least three—Goneril, Regan and Edmund, the discredited son of Gloucester—are doomed to reiterate them. Houses will fall as a result.
This clarity of focus gives Peace's Lear something else in common with last week's Dead Man Walking and, as we'll see, A Number as well. Where an earlier age asked, in either mock or genuine bewilderment, "Where have these monsters come from?" these three productions all answer, in varying ways, "Right here. In fact, we created them."
When I call John Honeycutt's Salter the Michael Caine character in A NUMBER, director C. Glen Matthews agrees. Salter seems completely unassuming and harmless at the opening: a father trying to comfort a son through a traumatizing discovery. It's clearly a domestic drama, even if it takes place in Thomas Mauney and Miyuki Su's futuristic containment area—an octagonal pit, walled off by plastic sheeting, carpeted in black Astroturf and illuminted by a grid of halogen lights, with chairs on ledges surrounding most sides.
The problem is that Salter has already known, for years, what Bernard is finding out just now. Doctors have taken cells from his body and created a series of clones with them. This action will precipitate more than one identity crisis before the evening's done.
And over 55 suspenseful minutes, as the layers, the rationalizations and the cover stories are inexorably (and sometimes violently) stripped away, the immensity of what Salter has been hiding steadily increases.
"That's what's fascinating about the piece," Matthews says. "Salter knows these sons are copies, and he's kept it all to himself for 30-some-odd years. Still he's prepared to see his relationship with the second son, which he's worked on for years, and perhaps the son himself, slowly crumbling right in front of him. He knows, but he says nothing, or not the right thing. He has several opportunities to make things right, but instead he lets things erode even further."
As a result, where other directors might have centered on the futuristic elements of the playwright's dystopic script, Matthews focuses instead on "the way Churchill chose to scrape away at the father/son relationship, to get at what's underneath."
And what's underneath is far from pretty. The playwright indicts a society's headlong pursuit of a technology it hasn't developed the ethics (or psychological sophistication) for. While it would be criminal to give away most of Churchill's twists, suffice it to say that all clones aren't equally happy with the way things have turned out. A final twist at the end suggests how far a human who finds himself molecularly handcuffed to a dysfunctional—and quite possibly psychotic—family might have to get clear of that genetic shipwreck.
In this taut production, Honeycutt only adds to recently celebrated achievements as a leading actor, while Ryan Brock's performances as several versions of the same offspring keep us on the edge of our chairs.
A vagabond heart roams. Its center is always ... Elsewhere. Unfortunately, the same may be said for the current incarnation of THE GREAT GAME, D. Tucker Smith's curious drama whose world premiere bowed Friday night under the auspices of Theater Previews at Duke in Reynolds Theater.
Against the backdrop of an India whose British rule in the 1870s is being threatened by the Russians, The Great Game focuses on the apparently tempestuous relationship between George Hayward and Safia Das. He's an English explorer whose disaffection with the hypocrisies of Victorian society back home propels him away from it—while somehow still remaining in its service. Since the British believe accurate maps are crucial to maintaining their order in this part of the world, they have trained Das to be a spy—by making surreptitious maps of uncharted parts of her country.
Except that, no sooner than this pair's improbable relationship is marginally established, the focus of The Great Game suddenly shifts back home to England, and George's family—where it remains for most of the evening. Occasionally, characters flash back to the subcontinent—usually through imaginatively staged segues that make the three doors of Derek McLane's atmospheric set open onto streets actually a thousand miles or so apart.
But the nagging sense of something missing haunts the opulent trappings of this Broadway hopeful. At this point I fear it's a crucial ingredient in all drama: central characters who finally undergo a profound change.
For after Hayward and Das' relationship is established, primarily by theatrical shorthand and relatively early in the evening, on a fundamental level the pair basically stays frozen after that. After circumstances separate the two, George occasionally re-enters, through the stasis of memory, to look on the beloved through Marcus Dean Fuller's bedroom eyes. He remains the idealized—and inconvenient—unattainable; she, the devotee who cannot breach the distance.
Since the two don't change much from that point, the supporting characters—including George's mother, Charlotte, older brother Edward and younger sibling Martin—have to. Their encounters with Safia do ultimately unveil and disarm Victorian prejudices, empowering certain characters to challenge social barriers and injustice. The problem: These changes—and characters—still seem peripheral.
As satellites, they do change orbit, but around two entities that appear to stay too fixed. It's ironic, but at this reading, a work about historical cartography still leaves too much of its two central hearts unmapped.
E-mail Byron at email@example.com.
Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through Feb. 24
The Great Game
Duke Theater Previews
Through March 4
Through Feb. 24