Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Every Inch a Lear

David Montee, AEA, as King Lear at Interlochen Center for the Arts 2017.
Photo courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts

A Review of King Lear at Interlochen Center for the Arts—July 8, 2017
by Richard Joyrich

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing a wonderful production of King Lear Saturday night along with Linda Theil at Interlochen Center of the Arts in northwest Michigan.

Interlochen has held an annual Shakespeare Festival for 10 years now and I am been privileged to have been able to see at least two productions there in the past, Twelfth Night in 2008 and The Taming of the Shrew in 2009. Both of these were excellent performances, but the production of King Lear this year far exceeded them.

Of course, the main reason that I enjoyed the production so much is the extraordinary talent of David Montee in the title role. I have seen King Lear at many other venues, including productions at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario with William Hutt and Colm Feore as Lear and Montee’s performance was even more enjoyable to me in many ways.

Montee knows how to inject just the right amount of humor into the role during the scenes when Lear descends into madness, while retaining the pathos and dignity of the character at all times. I was thus particularly glad to see that the director of the play, William Church, chose to leave in much of Act 4, scene 6 intact (the only scene where Lear and Gloucester have any kind of meaningful dialog together) combining the mad Lear who is only now beginning to understand humanity and the blind Gloucester who now finds that he is beginning to “see clearly” how the world really works. It is a wonderful and pivotal scene (but frequently cut short in many productions of the play) and David Montee as Lear and Jeffrey Nauman as Gloucester carry it off beautifully.

David Montee is also able to project the controlled rage of Lear when he is thwarted again and again and knows just when to allow his voice to come out in a roar. In short, Montee’s performance is perfectly nuanced and appropriate to all situations Lear is exposed to in the play.

Linda and I were able to meet David for coffee the next day and we discussed (among other things) his portrayal of Lear. He confided that he had based his performance on that of Peter Ustinov in a memorable production in 1980 at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Ustinov and his understudy Maurice Good published a rehearsal journal of this production in 1982, titled Every Inch a Lear (based of course on Lear’s famous line in Act 4, scene 6, “Aye, every inch a king”). Appropriately, I have also used this title for my blog entry.

Other actors in the cast had very notable performances as well. I single out Skylar Okerstrom-Lang as a very energetic and realistic Edgar, particularly in his assumed role of Poor Tom and the way he plays off the other characters he encounters.

I also enjoyed the performance of Jeremy Gill as the Fool. He and David Montee had wonderful scenes together and I very much like the way he just walked off stage, whistling, in the opposite direction of everyone else as some kind of explanation (I suppose from the director) of the Fool’s sudden and unexplained disappearance in the middle of the play after giving the enigmatic line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon”.

This production of Lear (as in the case of the last five years of the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival) took place in the beautiful outdoor Upton-Morley Pavilion. Performing outdoors of course always carries the risks of inclement weather and extraneous noise, but in the idyllic Camelot-like setting of Interlochen this is not at all a problem. David told us that, in the five years of performing outdoors in this pavilion there was only ever one instance of rain, and that was only a sort of light drizzle.

An outdoor setting for this current performance was ideal and really allowed the audience to “enter the world of the play.” Okerstrom-Lang, as Edgar, took every opportunity to enhance his portrayal of Edgar as Poor Tom by rubbing real dirt from the edges of the pavilion onto his body and picking up sharp looking rocks and twigs to mutilate himself (thankfully this last was only play-acting) and many other actors took advantage of the setting to effect dramatic entrances and exits.

In addition, there is nothing like being outdoors to feel a part of the famous storm scene. Through the amazing performances of the actors on stage and appropriate use of lighting and sound effects, it was possible to almost actually feel the [nonexistent] rain while watching the play.

In all, this was an incredible experience at Interlochen for both Linda and myself and a wonderful way of celebrating David Montee’s retirement after 21 years of being the Director of the Theatre Arts Division at Interlochen Arts Academy.

But, Montee was quick to point out to us that he is not finished with acting and will certainly be back for future productions at the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival or other venues, “if they ask me."

I have no doubt at all, David, that they will.

Montee is the best Lear ever

Oberon chair Richard Joyrich, MD and David Montee, PhD, AEA rejoice after Montee's superb performance as Lear
July 8, 2017 at Interlochen Center for the Arts, Interlochen MI. Photo: Linda Theil
by Linda Theil

Oberons returned to Interlochen, MI this weekend to cheer our friend David Montee, PhD in his final performance as Lear at the Interlochen Center for the Arts. Montee -- a Shakespearean actor of extraordinary merit -- retired this term after 30 years teaching at Interlochen Arts Academy.

Oberon Chair Richard Joyrich, MD and I attended the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival production of Lear on July 8, 2017 in the outdoor Upton-Morley Pavilion on the Interlochen campus.

Lear set, Upton-Morley Pavilion, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Interlochen MI, 2017
During the Lear ovation, Joyrich said, "The best I've ever seen." This is high praise from an enthusiast who knows the canon exquisitely. Joyrich shares his enthusiasm for Montee's performance with our readers here at "Every Inch a Lear".

David Montee as Lear and Jeremy Gill as Fool, July 8, 2017, Interlochen Center for the Arts,
 Intelochen MI. Photo: courtesy Interlochen Center for the Arts

Also included in the cast were Peter Carroll as France, and Jeremy Gill as Fool -- both of whom Oberons saw in the Interlochen production of Cardenio at the Interlochen "Shakespeare Authorship Symposium" in April. During Sunday morning coffee at Bud's, Montee told us that Jeremy Gill's parents: Michael Gill and Jayne Atkinson of HBO's House of Cards were in the audience on Saturday to support their son. 

During a wide-ranging discussion of the plays on Bud's roomy porch, Montee recommended M.M. Mahood's Playing Bit Parts in Shakespeare for its insight into the depth of Shakespeare's characterization. Oberons would add, in that vein, Montee's own outstanding text on acting: Translating Shakespeare: a Guide for Young Actors (Smith & Kraus, 2014).

Oberons thank you, David Montee, for your work and your art.

Daylilies from the gardens at Hofbrau House where Oberons had dinner on July 8, 2017.