Angst Over the Ages

Beowulf updates the tragedy of 'Lear,' while Etcetera's 'Thom Pain' probes contemporary despair

The literary critic M.H. Abrams defined "tragedy" as a series of actions that "eventuate in a disastrous conclusion for the protagonist."

In Shakespeare's King Lear, a series of really bad things (spoiler alert!) do indeed eventuate in a disastrous conclusion for the titular character. In Beowulf Alley's contemporary-dress production, called simply Lear, the king (Bill Epstein) begins the play as a confident man, standing upright in a nice suit. He ends it on his knees, crying.

A tragedy needs a tragic hero, of course. Aristotle famously argued that a tragic hero must suffer a reversal of fortune because of an error of judgment—his "tragic flaw."

Lear neatly illustrates this idea. As the play begins, the monarch is planning to distribute his kingdom among his three daughters. The scheming Goneril (Bree Boyd) and Regan (Amy Loehrs) give elaborate speeches about their love for their father, but the devoted Cordelia (Kate Cannon) refuses to indulge in such a hyperbolic display. Lear banishes her, and this error in judgment costs him dearly.

Perhaps because Lear's own flaws lead so inexorably to his downfall, it's surprisingly easy to root for the villains. As Goneril and Regan, Boyd and Loehrs sashay around the stage in high heels and fabulous cocktails dresses. Watching them scheme and fight over the similarly devious Edmund (Alex Greengaard) is quite fun.

In contrast, it's harder to stay interested in the good guys. When Lear turns frail and senile toward the end, Epstein's performance is touching—and, in fact, Lear's eventual reunion with Cordelia is the most-moving moment of the play. Earlier, though, Epstein shifts in and out of a hyper, nutty version of the king, which is neither convincing nor engaging.

Similarly, the other wronged man, Edgar (Aaron Guisinger), is required to play several mad scenes. Guisinger does fine when playing the sane Edgar, but his deranged Edgar is tedious.

There's no scenery except what is occasionally suggested by lighting—director Michael Fenlason wanted to keep the focus on the actors' performances. Clearly, a great deal of work has gone into those performances. The actors are confident with the Shakespearean language, and they shine in several well-choreographed fight scenes.

If you've never seen King Lear, this production would be a good place to start. Fenlason adapted the play, and the cuts he's made feel appropriate. The play does not run excessively long—yet it's telling that I still found myself wondering at moments if Lear, sinned against and tragic as he is, could just hurry up and finish his sad journey already.

Etcetera's new production, Will Eno's Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), takes place in the living room of a country cabin—the same set that Live Theatre Workshop is using for its current mainstage play, The Foreigner.

Etcetera is the late-night branch of LTW, and the plays are sharing the set out of convenience. Thom Pain is a one-man show set in no particular time or place, so it doesn't really require its own scenery, yet I wish Etcetera had covered up more of the props; if you haven't seen The Foreigner, you might find yourself puzzled by the wood-burning stove and the deer's head on the wall.

Will Eno's 2005 one-man play was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has had successful runs in several cities; this is its first production in Arizona. It's an existential play, though it's not as somber as that description might sound.

Thom Pain rambles to the audience about life. Debating the nature of pain and the fleeting existence of love, he wonders what could possibly make life worthwhile. Eno makes these subjects entertaining, through rich language that is rife with stream-of-consciousness wordplay and jokes. Thom Pain plays like a standup comedy act, with the lone character interacting with the audience in ways that range from flirtatious to belligerent.

Directed by Leslie J. Miller, this production stars Christopher Johnson, also the artistic director of Etcetera. Johnson is clearly a busy man; in addition to this play, he's also acting in The Rogue Theatre's As I Lay Dying, which opens this week. All of that activity is impressive, to say the least. Perhaps because of this—and also because Etcetera's Persephone or Slow Time, which Johnson directed, is to date my favorite Tucson show—I really wanted to love Thom Pain and Johnson in it.

As it turned out, I loved both—but I didn't think they were a good fit.

Johnson is dressed in an ill-fitting suit and big glasses, apparently meant to indicate Thom's haplessness in life and love. But I never believed that Johnson was a hopeless man struggling to find meaning. He's too charismatic and too polished to be convincing in the role. He seems to be having a great time.

It's an odd critique, I know, to complain that an actor is too charming and too funny. But a less-obviously confident delivery might have better conveyed moments of real doubt and existential despair.

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