The D.C. theater scene is wonderful — and growing — but also, when you think about it, surprisingly modest. There are a handful of world-class companies, another handful of superb smaller companies, and then a significant array of catch-as-catch-can troupes who manage to hang on, season after season, pretty much by their fingernails.
For a major metropolitan area with an enormous pool of wealthy and educated potential patrons, you’d be forgiven for wondering why there wasn’t a just a bit more support — and thus, theater — to go around. But if there is a silver lining, it is that some quite exceptional talent often finds itself in some surprisingly small (and affordable) places.
Case in point is WSC Avant Bard. A tiny company operating out of Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center (read: space attached to a middle school), Avant Bard clearly has a miniscule budget. Indeed, it’s hard to watch a performance here without sensing just how much this company must yearn for the resources that would bring the space, sets, and costumes worthy of its creative vision.
Putting aside the visible shoestrings (and such foibles as a highly overactive air conditioner — do bring a sweater), this is the place to see some extraordinary shows. Small as it is, Avant Bard is theater for that “other” Washington, the one that lives beneath the political engine and the tourist traps. It is for the intelligentsia, the Bohemians, the lovers of the obscure. Put simply, if Washington had an off-off Broadway, Avant Bard would be “on” it.
All that said, their production of King Lear (THREE STARS) is not a particularly edgy or elaborate reinterpretation. Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s sets are simple and symbolic, suggesting a cold and barren world, but not much more as to how its people live. And while Elizabeth Ennis’ costumes appear more-or-less modern, they deliver status, not statements. They are present, but they are lower in key. The message is clear: for director Tom Prewitt, the focus is on the intimacy of the treatment. This is Lear up close and personal.
And as such, it is the perfect vehicle for Rick Foucheux in the title role. Sonorous, physically imposing, conscious of the performance inherent in certain types of leadership, Foucheux gives this man a decidedly distinct personality. If he is not especially likeable, he is grimly authentic. As Lear’s mind begins to cycle down into madness, the actor doesn’t compromise: this Lear is who he is, even as he falls apart. It is an interesting portrait.
That said, the chemistry with his daughters never quite works and dampens some of the emotional power. As Goneril, Alyssa Sanders cuts an elegant figure and delivers some convincing moments, but there is little sense of her connection to her father, estranged or otherwise. This detachment extends to sister Regan: when the two witness their father’s initial madness, for example, one would expect an exchange of meaningful glances. And although Charlene V. Smith makes a visually striking Regan, outfitted in a black bustier, she is also almost too unflappable. It makes her occasional outbursts feel incongruous. Whatever kind of father Lear was, he raised these women, and their faces should tell something of their life in his orbit.
As loving daughter Cordelia, Kathryn Zoerb goes a smidgen too far in the other direction, expressing at a pitch better suited to a larger, less intimate space. Even with this, she doesn’t have enough tender connection with her father to bring home the tragedy of her death.
Indeed, the real emotion and pathos in this Lear comes via the truly stellar performance of Christopher Henley as The Fool. Delivering thinly-cloaked warnings and wisdom amid the japes and jokes, Henley offers not just the music of the language, but also the deep abiding texture in an interesting character. He is riveting to watch, his face an endlessly changing yet subtle landscape of The Fool’s fear, love and frustration with his master and, at times, himself.
Another standout is Vince Eisenson as Kent, a misunderstood but loyal follower of the king. Eisenson has something of a Hollywood-style charisma about him and it’s a nice gloss on the integrity he brings to the role. He may have fewer meaty moments, but he works at Foucheux and Henley’s level, delivering his man with understated yet expressive credibility. Another effective performance comes by way of Dylan Morrison Myers offering an interestingly frenetic Edmund who you don’t know whether to love or loathe. And, always nuanced and engaged, Cam Magee makes for a softly effective Gloucester, who falls so far afoul of Lear’s unpleasant offspring. Less successful, but this must fall partly to director Prewitt, is Sara Barker’s Edgar, who makes for an unconvincing trouser role and an even less convincing madman.
If Avant Bard is small in budget, it is big in vision and this is a chance to see Lear in close and thoughtful detail.
King Lear runs to June 25 at the Gunston Arts Center, 2700 South Lang St. Arlington. Tickets are $30 to $35. Call 703-418-4808 or visit avantbard.org.
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