Volume 76, Number 6 | June 28 - July 4 2006

Carol Rosegg

Alvin Epstein, starring (finally) as Lear, at La MaMa through July 2.

A King Lear who just might throw a chair at you

By Jerry Tallmer.

King Lear was sitting in his Chrysler Minivan in Brooklyn Heights, waiting for the parking-okay hour of 11 a.m, the morning after his opening night at Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa on East 4th Street. The drama runs three and a half hours, so Lear, also known as Alvin Epstein, hadn’t had much sleep.

“I think it went well,” he said over the telephone once his vehicle was safe from ticketing. “From the audience response, you could say very well. Of course my own impressions vary. Some nights I’m happy. Some nights I think could be better.”

In the spring of 1956 this same Alvin Epstein had brought forth, with shuddering brilliance, what to this playgoer will always be the definitive Lucky the slave in the first New York staging, on Broadway, of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

Three months earlier, January 1956 – “exactly 50 years ago,” he cheerfully now observed – the same Alvin Epstein had appeared as the Fool to Orson Welles’s Lear in a tumultuous, short-lived (21 performances) New York City Center production of Welles’s vision of Shakespeare’s tragedy. (Among other events, the king-sized actor-director’s two sprained ankles had forced him to play Lear first with a crutch, then from a wheelchair.)

Welles was 41 at the time. Alvin Epstein was 31, and maybe one-third the other’s size.

“They called me to audition when I was on tour with [Marcel] Marceau. I came back to New York and auditioned for Welles in his hotel suite on Park Avenue. I wanted to play Edmund the bastard” – chief villain of “Lear” – “and it all went very cordially. I left, went home on the subway to my family uptown on 218th Street, and as I walked in the door my father said: ‘Orson Welles called. He wants you to play the Fool.’ ”

 Was your father impressed?

“I don’t know, but I can hardly imagine he wasn’t. He was a very good family doctor named Harry Epstein. My mother, Goldie Epstein, had died in 1946.”

 The year after his mother’s death, Alvin Epstein, who’d been with the Field Artillery in Europe during the war, went back to Paris to study mime for four years under the great Etienne Decroux. Who will reenter this story some paragraphs hence.

 Had Alvin, when he was playing Lear’s poor, doomed, truth-telling Fool, ever imagined he might one day be playing Lear himself?

 “No, definitely not. I don’t know what I imagined, but it had nothing to do with ‘King Lear.’  ”

Many years later – maybe six or seven years ago now – when Epstein was a member of Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., he had been in a production of “King Lear” with F. Murray Abraham as Lear, Epstein as Gloucester, the faithful old retainer whose eyes are gouged out by Lear’s daughter Regan and her husband.

“I wanted to play Lear, but Adrian Hall, the director, didn’t want me to. So then I just put that idea to bed.”

 While Epstein was at ART, Brustein installed a training institute. Epstein was among the teachers, and one of his students in the very first graduating class was a young man named Ben Evett, who would someday launch his own Actors’ Shakespeare Project of Boston.

“Around four years ago, when Bob Brustein resigned from ART, by sheer coincidence I left at the same time, came down to New York, did ‘Tuesdays With Morrie’ [a big Off-Broadway hit at the Minetta Lane] and other things.

“Two years ago or so, Ben Evett called on the phone one day. ‘You wanna play Lear?’ I said: ‘Yes.”

It opened ASP’s season last October, to a general acclaim that included, anent the show’s star, the New York mag headline: “Best Great Performance New York Missed.” Now, at La MaMa, that performance need not be missed.

The Alvin Epstein who was 31 when he did the Fool to Welles’s Lear is now 81. How old does he see Lear as?

“The truth of the matter is I see him as my age. I don’t have to think about the age any more. If I were ten years younger, I might have to think about it.”

George Orwell, in one of the greatest essays ever written in the English language – “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool” – asks the reader to:
Shut your eyes and think of “King Lear,” if possible without calling to mind any of the language. What do you see? Here at any rate is what I see: a majestic old man in a long black robe, with flowing white hair and beard, a figure out of Blake’s drawings (but also, curiously, rather like Tolstoy), wandering through a storm and cursing the heavens, in company with a Fool and a lunatic. Presently the scene shifts and the old man, still cursing, still understanding nothing, is holding a dead girl in his arms while the Fool dangles on a gallows somewhere in the background.
Orwell, in short, sees Lear (and also sees Tolstoy, who hated Shakespeare and hated “King Lear”) as a stubborn, foolish, angry old man who refuses to face reality.

“Well, that’s true,” said Alvin Epstein, “but it barely covers the territory. He’s actually a very three-dimensional character.”

Has Epstein ever known anybody like Lear in quote, unquote, real life?

“Oh yes,” the actor said – and some moments later said he’d only thought of it, for the first time ever, on the instant the question was put – “Oh yes, Etienne Decroux. He had many of the same symptoms as Lear, a most ferocious temper he could not control, ultimately very self-destructive, coupled with great affection and love. Would attack people he loved, physically even. Would throw chairs at them.

“He was a genius of sorts and could have had a great company, building on [Jean-Louis] Barrault and Marceau and other people, but he destroyed it all.” Short pause. “I also think he had stage fright.” Which, Alvin Epstein said when the point was pressed, he himself does not, though there might have been fleeting occasions over the years.

“I think from Shakespeare’s words,” he said, “you can deduce that Lear was a very good and beloved king. You don’t give your kingdom away to daughters you despise. The Fool loves him overtly, Kent loves him overtly, Cordelia loves him but can’t tell him. So he’s obviously a beloved person, with just this tragic flaw of a furious temper. And he knows it. He asks the gods, when he’s going mad: ‘Keep me in temper … ’ ”

Anybody who can play sweet-tempered Morrie Schwartz one year, raging-tempered Lear the next, and make us believe them both, can come tune my piano any time.

KING LEAR.  By William Shakespere. Directed by Patrick Swanson. A production by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project of Boston, through July 2 at La MaMa E.T.C.’s Annex, (box office) 47-A East 4th Street, (212) 475-7710.

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