Stages

New York Reviews: Powerful Performances in The Mother, Julius Caesar, King Lear

Isabelle Huppert and Chris Noth. Photo by Ahron R. Foster.

The Mother at Atlantic Theater Company

I sat down in my front row seat at Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater in an old church in Chelsea. Fiddled with my coat and notebook. Looked up at the stage and there was Isabelle Huppert sitting five feet from me. Looking bored, occasionally reading a book. She sat there, on a long white leatherish sofa that stretched across the stage, until it was 8pm and the play started.

Huppert stars (along with Chris Noth as her husband) in The Mother by Florian Zeller. In February, I reviewed Zeller’s play The Father (staged here by Remy Bumppo Theatre) and I could use a similar intro for this play:

The Mother by French playwright Florian Zeller is a play about angst and depression. But it’s not your typical touching human story designed to gain your sympathy for a troubled person and family. It’s a skillfully structured puzzle box that tricks your brain as well as its subject’s.

There isn’t a direct storyline between the two plays but Anne in The Mother is the daughter of André, who suffers from dementia in The Father. And Zeller’s latest play, The Son, focuses on Nickolas, the son in The Mother. Zeller reiterates some of his structural devices in The Mother, such as repeating scenes with variations, major staging changes during quick blackouts, and a lead character who slides into depression on a mixture of liquor and pills.

Huppert is a magnetic actor on film and it’s impossible to take your eyes off her on stage. She is the charismatic center of the play and she’s on stage for virtually all of the 80-minute production. Noth as her workaholic/philanderer husband David is fine; but the play is The Mother’s. In early scenes, she peppers her husband with questions about how his day went, the women he’s been sleeping with, and about the seminar he’s going to tomorrow in “Boofalo.” She laments the fact that their adult son Nickolas never visits or returns her phone calls. David replies that Nickolas is probably busy with life.

Nickolas, for whom Anne seems to have an unhealthy libidinous urge, is played by Justice Smith; their scenes together are mesmerizing, as he tries to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend while his mother tells him it’s over. When Anne changes into a bitsy red cocktail dress and wants to dance with him, her intentions become clear. Anne and David have a daughter too, but Anne describes her as ugly and repellent; she has a similar opinion of Nickolas’ girlfriend.

The staging and direction of The Mother by Trip Cullnan are crisp and slick. (Some people said they had difficulty understanding Huppert because of her accent, but there were only a few words that I missed.) Having seen two plays by Florian Zeller, I’m looking forward to the next one. He’s a smart and inventive playwright.

The Mother runs until April 13 at Atlantic Theater Company, but the run has been sold out almost since its opening.

The company of Julius Caesar in battle mode. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar at Theatre for a New Audience

This is an explosive and emotional staging of Shakespeare’s play. It’s never been one of my favorite plays by the Bard, but this thrilling production will make you think again about this story of conspiracy, resentment and civil war.

Shana Cooper’s direction and reimagining of this Caesar story (originally staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) is powerfully choreographed, violent and bloody. (Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch gives a rock and roll beat and intensity to the battle scenes.) It’s a showy visual production, without a lot of heart, except in the friendship between Brutus (warmly played by Brandon J. Dirden) and Cassius (Matthew Amendt) as they express their resentment of Caesar’s ambition to be king. Brutus’ relationship with his wife, Portia (Merritt Janson), is also nicely played. Rocco Sisto (familiar from his many TV appearances) as Caesar is appropriately confident and his pride makes him decide to go to the capitol despite his wife’s warnings. The iconic and sardonic funeral speech by Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour) over the body of Julius Caesar is an emotive high point.

As contemporary as this production tries to be, one would think there would have been more women cast in major roles. But other than Caesar’s wife Calphurnia (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and Portia, the only woman on stage is Emily Dorsch playing Cicero.

The setting (jaggedly cut plasterboard flats, plastic sheeting) and costumes (mostly modern dress sometimes including jean shorts, leather jackets, berets and hoodies) suggest a play set in a contemporary era. But fortunately, there’s no effort to equate Caesar and the end of democracy with any current world leader (as was done in the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park 2017 production).

The play runs more than 2.5 hours with one intermission. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar continues through April 28 at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, near the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.

King Lear at Cort Theatre

Glenda Jackson as King Lear. Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Does a woman playing a male role play it as a woman playing a man—or as a man? There’s no doubt that Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of King Lear is a strong masculine depiction, softened only by the grief of a parent on the loss of a child as the play ends. She is not Queen Lear.

(H/T to playwright Robert O’Hara, who addressed this point in a panel discussion on “The State of the Play,” a few days before I saw King Lear. That event was sponsored by American Theatre magazine and Signature Theatre.)

The play, directed by Sam Gold, opens this week at the Cort Theatre on Broadway. I saw it in a preview performance two weeks ago. Because I did not see an official (post-preview) performance, this will be an overview of the production, not a review.

Jackson initiated the role of Lear in 2016 at the Old Vic in London; it was her return to the stage after 23 years as a Labor member of Parliament. That modern-dress production was directed by Deborah Warner.

This production has a refreshingly diverse style. The role of Gloucester is played by Jayne Houdyshell and other women play ensemble roles usually filled by male actors. The cast includes African American actors in several major roles. A deaf actor plays Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall.

Jackson is probably the smallest person on stage, although I didn’t realize how small and slight she is until I saw her with the other actors in their curtain call. She approaches the role with both physical and vocal power.

The staging itself is inventive (scenic design by Miriam Beuther). The throne room in the first scene, furnished richly but minimally, replaces the heath where Lear and his Fool wander late in the play. The chairs and tables in act one are overturned and paper is strewn over the stage to create a scene of chaos. Lear performs the famous “Blow winds and crack your cheeks” speech in front of the curtain.

Original music by Philip Glass is a highlight of King Lear. Four musicians—two violins, viola and cello—are on stage for most of the play but not nailed to one spot. They move around to suit the action.

A word about the vocal performances of the cast. My seat was in the lower mezzanine and I was impressed with the quality of vocal performances by the entire cast. The actors all spoke conversationally, naturalistically; it was one of the best iterations of Shakespearean dialogue I have ever experienced.

King Lear runs 3 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. It continues at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., with tickets on sale through July 7.

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