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The Lear Project
Harwich Junior Theatre, Cape Cod, MA
September ‘07



Based on William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR
Adapted and Directed by Andy Arden Reese

PICK of “BEST CAPE THEATER OF 2007!

CAPECOD TIMES CRITICS PICK THE PRODUCTIONS THAT MOST IMPRESSED IN 2007

“THIS ALL WOMAN PRODUCTION OF KING LEAR PRESENTED A COMPELLING STRUGGLE OF AN AGING QUEEN AND HER DAUGHTERS THAT MIRRORED THE ORIGINAL PLOT IN HIGHLIGHTING TREACHERY, GREED, AND INSENSITIVITY, BUT MADE IT RELEVANT TO BABY BOOMER WOMEN TRYING TO DEAL WITH ISSUES SURROUNDING THEIR MOTHERS’ GROWING OLDER. THE CHORUS, CHOREOGRAPHY, AND LIGHTING MADE THIS A TRUE MULTIMEDIA, MULT-SENSORY EXPERIENCE.”

“A Magical Mystery Tour De Force… This production is truly worth seeing… these girls kick ass.”
John Watters, The Cape Chronicle
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THEATRE LILA STORMS CAPE COD WITH THE LEAR PROJECT

In August, Theatre LILA’s Artistic Directors Andy Arden Reese and Jessica Lanius, and founding company member Susan Schuld traveled to Cape Cod, Massachusetts for THE LEAR PROJECT. In collaboration with the Harwich Junior Theatre and directed by Andy Arden Reese, THE LEAR Project assembled a multi-generational cast of women to dissect, dissemble, and dissolve expectations of women in power in Arden Reese's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear. Exploding the tragic story of monarch Lear, who's crumbling body mirrors the crumbling of an empire, this production placed women in the roles conventionally played by men and smashed the rules of the mother/daughter, sister/sister, friend/friend relationship and the roles women play when confronted with the temptation of ultimate power.

In conjunction with The LEAR Project process, Theatre LILA led a performance workshop for a multi-generational group of women to develop the theatrical landscape of the LEAR world. For three weeks, this group of women and girls delved into the physical theater techniques of LILA’s 360 degree fusion. All of the ensemble seen in The LEAR Project was developed by the ensemble through our “theatrical research” explored within the workshop.

The LEAR Project went on to be represented in the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod’s regional Creative Collaborative conference in November, which drew artists and cultural organizations from across Cape Cod to celebrate the year’s best collaborative projects in the arts.


“Production breathes new life into LEAR… Good theater often provides one of two reactions: it entertains, or it prompts thought. Rare is the production that does both. With The Lear Project, Harwich Winter Theater and Theatre LILA have created that most rare of alchemies.”
Scott Dalton, The CapeCodder
Read Full Review

“Intriguing… I urge all of you to see it for yourselves.”
Gwenn Friss, The Cape Cod Times
Read Full Review

The LEAR Project: Shakespeare, Women And Power At HJT
Jennifer Sexton - The Cape Cod Chronicle
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Lessons from LEAR
The Cape Codder
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Theater Project Looks at How Gender Affects LEAR
The Cape Cod Times
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Cast List
In order of appearance:

Lear - Florence Phillips
Cordelia - Leanne McLaughlin
Kent/Caius - Susan Schuld
Gloucester - Karen Mcpherson
Ederne - Jenn Silva
Edina/Tess - Jessica Lanius                         
Goneril - Anna Heick* Chosen as a BEST PERFORMANCE OF 2007        
Regan - Dakota Shepard                                               
Fool - Keelia O’Donnell                                              
Oswald - Mackenzie Hamilton                 

Ensemble                   
Suzette Hutchinson
Marik Kirsch
Emma Lass
Lucie Lass
Euphemia Maclellm
Erin Mahoney
Tess Wilfong

Producing Artistic Director/HJT - Nina K. Schuessler
Scenic and Lighting Design - Michael A. Reese
Costume Design - Robin McLaughlin
Sound Design - Andy Arden Reese
Choreography - Jessica Lanius
Voice & Speech - Susan Schuld
Dance Party Sequence - Keelia O’Donnell
Technical Direction - David C. Wallace

“…And you, my (mother), there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
                                                            Dylan Thomas



FULL REVIEWS & ARTICLES for The Lear Project...........................................


HJT's ‘Lear Project’ A Magical Mystery Tour De Force
by John Watters - The Cape Chronicle
9/20/07

“The Lear Project” is not your grandfather's Shakespeare, or your grandmother's for that matter, although that would be much closer to the target.   

The Harwich Junior Theatre, in collaboration with New York's Theater LILA, offer up a delightfully delicious toast of vintage Shakespeare. Partaking in a three week "in-residence" workshop at HJT, Theater LILA brings the visionary theater group and teaching laboratory founded in 2004 by Andy Arden Reese and Jessica Lanius, whose mission is to create an actor's "physical, intellectual, psychological, and emotional instrument – in a fusion of theater and dance," to the Cape.

Arden Reese, a professional actress and director since 1987, grew up on Cape Cod and in fact, kindled her love of theater acting in plays at the HJT in the early 1980s. Last year Reese brought LILA "home" to produce a week-end theatrical workshop at HJT. Deemed a success, a continued collaboration between the two groups was planned.

Arden Reese's adaptation and direction of the Bard's tragic masterpiece has a cross gender twist. In “The Lear Project,” the aged legendary British monarch is not a king, but a queen. In fact, the entire cast is feminine, which once again shows the durability of  Shakespeare's penning's which have been interpreted in as many settings, times, and sex, as a director's imagination can conjure.

“The Lear Project” succeeds in unleashing a multi-media spectacle of sight and sound, yet still manages to bring central focus to the craft of acting and elegant eloquence of the timeless script. Condensed from the original five-act tragedy, made famous by the emoting's of the likes of Barrymore, Welles or Plummer, this Lear, is led majestically by equity actress Florence Phillips in the title role, and is virtually fleet of foot coming in at two (no intermission) hours.

Phillips is spellbinding as the aging queen bringing strength, wisdom and tenderness to a role as demanding as any written. As the progression of age overtakes her she realizes her legacy must be passed on. Her plan is to split her kingdom into three parts between her princess daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. The plan is short-circuited when Cordelia doesn't want a part. Her sisters immediately start a power struggle rife with sinister machinations to out succeed each other. Between them it is soon discovered their respect or need for their abdicated queen mum is in itself short-lived as they cast her out to nature itself. Lear is forced to endure a night in one of theater-dom's most vicious storms summed succinctly by the line, "Things that love night love not such nights as this, the wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark."

Two of LILA's own bolster supporting duel roles with Lanius playing Edina/Tess, and Susan Schuld playing Kent/Caius. Both accomplished Shakespearean actresses bring highly polished skills to the local stage and are joyful to watch.

Not to be outdone by the pros from Dover (sorry, couldn't help myself with this inside joke), our local femme thespians equally carry the Bard's weighty water.  Karen McPhearson, a Chatham High School drama coach, has done plenty of small parts on Cape stages these last few years.  This time she gets to sink her teeth into the meaty role of Gloucester. The result is phenomenal. Jabbing equally with humor and disdain, she reaches the apogee of her performance when she is ghastly tortured into telling Lear's whereabouts by having her eyes ripped out. Kind of makes water boarding seem humane.

Ederne played by Jenn Silva is also very well done.  Her program bio mentions no former theatrical performances, but her stage presence and grace defies that; she is mystifying to watch.  Anna Heick as Goneril and Dakota Shepard as Regan, do fine interpretations as the conniving siblings. Leanne McLaughlin is both beautiful and genteel as the young fair Cordelia.  She lights up the stage when upon it.  If there is a flaw, this adaptation doesn't seem to feature her quite enough.

Other standout performances go to Keelia Skye O'Donnell as the Fool, her acrobatic dance combined with insightful wisdom (a trait of all Shakespeare's jesters) make her character shine.

Counterbalancing as a gum snapping, wise-girl foil, is MacKenzie Hamilton as Oswald.  Despite her tough twerp-ness she is a very likable character. Mention of Lanius' choreography is merited. A mix of exalted pageantry, disco fervor and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” slo-mo fight scenes, the mission of "fusion" is magnificently pulled off. Also notable is the stark set designed by Michael A. Reese (the director's husband) done by grids of pipes and a simply lit scrim allowing the viewers imagination to behold any backdrop.

At the conclusion of this tragedy there is no happy ending, with dead bodies strewn around the stage worthy of any Scorsese epic. It just goes to show there isn't anything new under the sun.

This production is truly worth seeing whether you're a Shakespearean scholar or a wannabe. It's just too good. Politically incorrect or not, I mean this in the finest sense: these girls kick ass.
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Production breathes new life into ‘Lear’
By Scott Dalton - The Cape Codder

Good theater often provokes one of two reactions: it entertains, or it prompts thought. Rare is the production that does both. With “The Lear Project,” the Harwich Winter Theatre and Theatre LILA have created that most rare of alchemies. At its heart, this is Shakespeare’s “Lear,” with all the tragedy and sorrow of the original text. But it is equally director Andrea Arden Reese’s story, speaking through Shakespeare in an adaptation that at once complements the Bard’s work, while also staking out vigorous and exciting new ground. Arden Reese’s adaptation strikes all males from the cast, repopulating it entirely with women.

But these are not females taking on male roles. They use the same lines but they are wholly feminine. This creates intriguing plot parallels as well as adding to the horror of filial betrayal. While it is terrible for daughters to systematically plot the destruction of their father, is it not somehow even more unnatural for them to act in the same manner toward their mother? Even those who have long relegated “Lear” to a bad memory from high school English classes will have no difficulty understanding and following this production.

Lear has three daughters, and moves early to divide her kingdom equally. Regan and Gonneril are effusive in their praise of their mother, but solitary Cordelia speaks plainly and honestly, and is immediately condemned for her perceived ingratitude. Too late, Lear realizes her error, even as her two favored daughters systematically chip away at her power and sanity. As Lear, Florence Phillips captures the tragic transformation from regal stateliness to bewildered madness.

Phillips starts off looking every part a queen; she commands the stage with her voice and presence, and we are left with no doubt of her ability to rule. But even early on, her vain weakness for false praise and an inability to admit when she is wrong lay the foundation for her ruin. Phillips’ Lear disintegrates in every way over the course of the production; as her mind dissolves, so too does she become physically and even vocally undone, and the actor carries us believably through every stage.

All is not gloom, however. The characters of Kent (Susan Schuld) and Lear’s Fool (Keelia Skye O’Donnell) play two sides of the same coin as both struggle to enlighten their lady and master, one through reason, the other through dark comedy. Schuld brings an intensity to Kent that equals that of Phillips, and O’Donnell marries physical prowess with the only character who can tell the queen the truth to her face without risking her wrath. Phillips’ descent into madness is reciprocated in her evil daughters’ ascent to power. Anna Heick’s Gonneril has a fiery edge that will not be contained, providing an interesting foil to Dakota Shepard’s softer, but no less evil, Regan. Heick and Shepard revel in their roles, pulling at the threads that both bind and support their mother, first delicately, and then with ruthless abandon.

Their story is echoed and amplified by the subplot of sisters Ederne (Jenn Silva) and Edina (Jessica Lanius), who are daughters to the loyal and trustworthy Gloucester (Karen McPherson). McPherson is an able reflection of Phillips’ Lear, but with less guile and more warmth. If anything, her story is therefore all the more tragic. Silva’s turn as Ederne boosts the secondary storyline into a tale that is as compelling and horrifying as that of the ungrateful spawn of Lear. In Silva’s hands, Ederne becomes a rabid spider, deftly spinning out a web of hate and deception that threatens all within its reach. Here is a character that is not evil by default or by birth, but by unholy choice.

Unlike the progeny of Lear, however, there is an element of hope to this tale. As Edina, Lanius shines with faithfulness, even as she struggles to understand how two sisters born of the same woman could be so different. The acting in the production (which includes a wonderful ensemble that takes on the role of a Greek chorus) is accentuated by superior technical values. Michael Reese’s set design draws the audience in with three metal grids that provide a sense of depth and perspective that far exceeds the theater’s thrust stage. A single 10-foot disk at dead center stage provides an ever-changing backdrop against which color and light reflect a host of different atmospheres. The simple set and Reese’s stark lighting design also reflect an Asian influence that pervades the production and is reflected in everything from Robin McLaughlin’s costume design to Lanius’ fight choreography, which has a distinct martial arts element to it. Even Arden Reese’s musical choices hint at this, sounding as if they could have come from one of Akira Kurosawa’s epic films.

This comparison rings true for reasons beyond the soundtrack. Kurosawa reinvented the Lear story in his film, “Ran.” Arden Reese, as with the late Japanese director, is challenging audiences to experience old tales in new ways. With “Lear,” Arden Reese hits the mark, seeing the heart of Shakespeare and making the story something all her own.
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LEAR Project features all-female cast
By Gwenn Friss - The Cape Cod Times

Staff Writer

HARWICH – When I told friends I was going to see Shakespeare’s King Lear performed entirely by women, they all said “Interesting.”

Now that I’ve seen it, I’d say INTRIGUING would be a better way to describe The LEAR Project, and I’d urge you to see it for yourselves.

There’s always a danger with such an experiment that the performance will seem pretentious and false. But the opposite was true. I could relate to this tragedy of a queen and her daughters struggling not only over land and jewels but, on a more basic level, over control. When is the right time for the younger generation to take over and where does that leave the aging queen? Is Lear’s madness the onset of Alzheimer’s or the raging fury of one left betrayed and powerless, downsized and no longer making her own decisions?

The LEAR Project is a collaborative effort of Harwich Junior Theatre, Harwich Winter Theatre, Theatre LILA, a theater company that explores nontraditional forms of theater. In addition to featuring an all-female, multigenerational cast, The LEAR Project incorporates music, dance, ritualized battles and an ensemble reminiscent of a Greek chorus.

Harwich native and HJT alumna Andy Arden Reese adapted Shakespeare’s tragedy, directed the production and did the sound design, which is integral to the play and its mounting tension. Arden Reese preserves much of the bard’s original dialogue, which is handled admirably by the entire cast. I heard every word, with the exception of a couple of opening lines Gloucester (Karen McPherson) and Kent (Susan Schuld) spoke as they walked down the theater’s center aisle.

The audience is engaged even before the play starts. As people took their seats, I was admiring the simple set of metal pipes formed into cage-like walls and ceiling. A 7-foot circle hung near the back of the deep stage with a bluish-white circle of light on the floor before it. I suddenly noticed what looked like to be statues tucked into the shadowy nooks along both walls of the theater. It was the ensemble, posed so still they looked like chess pieces awaiting the call to battle.

The play begins with Lear (Florence Phillips) asking her daughters to proclaim their love for her, before she divides her lands between them. Her married daughters (Anna Heick) and Regan (Dakota Shepard) are extravagantly eloquent, but her youngest and favorite, Cordelia (Leanne McLaughlin) skips the flattery, pointing out she is the truly devoted one who has never left her mother’s side. Lear doesn’t see it that way and banishes Cordelia, giving her to the King of France. She also ousts Kent for having the temerity to defend the girl.

In this all-female (and highly accomplished) cast, Edmund, illegitimate son of Gloucester, becomes Ederne (Jenn Silva) and Gloucester’s true heir Edgar becomes Edina (Jessica Lanius). Hungry for land and power, Ederne plots to discredit Edina and lures both of the queen’s daughters into loving her, figuring she’ll be well positioned to share the spoils of whoever comes out on top.

The Ederne that springs from Silva is scary – not a bad girl, but a bad guy, a really bad guy. She delights in her depravity, sharing her devious plans in asides to the audience.
The queen’s daughter, Regan, seems milder than her sister, Goneril, but power takes her down hard and fast.

As for me, a member of the sandwich generation, I’m leaving now to spend a few hours to be nice to my mother and daughter.
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The LEAR Project: Shakespeare, Women And Power At HJT
Jennifer Sexton - The Cape Cod Chronicle

New York City-based Theatre LILA brings its stunning all-female adaptation of Shakespeare's towering tragedy "King Lear," "The LEAR Project," to the Harwich Junior Theatre next week.

Theatre LILA was founded in 2004 to create provocative choreographic theater that arouses an audience and stimulates awareness, compassion and change. Creator and director Andy Arden Reese, an HJT alum, will be joined by co-artistic director Jessica Lanius and founding company member Susan Schuld for the production, and for an intensive performance workshop at HJT. Florence Phillips plays Lear in the Theatre LILA-Harwich Junior Theatre collaboration "The LEAR Project."

Why an all-female Lear?

"I always had this idea of doing an all female 'King Lear,'" says Arden Reese. "Quite simply, it dives into the mother-daughter relationship. And what it is to be mother and in that position, and the mother-daughter relationship, and the sisters relationship. Each one is so specific. Today especially, when we are looking at the potential for a female president, there's something about looking at what is the dimension of women in these roles of power. It's not simple."

It's been an interesting process for the director. "King Lear," she says, is "so steeped in our bones. 'King Lear!' Coming into the first read, even I felt like I had to adjust to the idea of how to have those lines and that text spoken through women's voices. But now, just the depth of it feels quite different than any version of 'King Lear' that I've ever seen. This is hot!"

It's one thing to envision an all-female "King Lear." It's quite another to find the actress with the necessary scope and depth to become Lear, a role that has been named the most challenging time and time again by the male actors for whom it was intended. Arden Reese found what she was looking for in Florence Phillips.

"I met Florence, and I said, 'Gasp—she could absolutely be Lear! Yes! Let's do it!'" says Arden Reese. "What was it about Florence? There's a ferocity in her, but she's incredibly vulnerable. It's that ferocity and vulnerability that to me feels very much like Lear. The reason I love to work with Florence is that her heart is so open. She is willing to really commit her guts to anything that I ask her to do. I know coming into it, and we're coming at it from a very physical perspective, that she is so willing to just go there. To throw herself, heart, soul, and guts, into it. That freedom and willingness to jump."

"It's really exciting for me," says Florence Phillips. "I'm steeped in Shakespeare, and I love the play 'King Lear,' yet at first I was sort of thinking, oh goodness, an all-female Lear? But Andy Reese is just one of the world's miracles in theater, really. It's so rewarding. I keep telling Andy that Shakespeare is smiling on his cloud.

The production, she says, "keeps taking the play into territory that's even deeper than usual. I don't know Julie Taymor, but I have a feeling when people start to work with Julie Taymor they feel the way we all do about Andy Reese. She's just some kind of genius. She has this extraordinary clarity of vision and is extremely imaginative, and amazingly organized. There's not one breath you draw that's time wasted. She works incredibly personally with us, leading us to the deepest layers, and she seems to have this boundless energy. I feel that as actors we spend our lives looking for our director. I wouldn't be surprised if I go through my life thinking of Andy Reese as my director."

Both Arden Reese and Phillips are thrilled to be working with HJT artistic director Nina Schuessler and a multigenerational cast. To Reese, the project feels like a homecoming as well as a coming together of many of the most talented and exceptional women she has worked with in the past few years.

"I grew up in this theater. I started classes here at HJT when I was 10, and my heart and blood is in this place. It's really rare. It's my family, my community, where I really came to understand the power of - and this sounds so high-falutin' — how significant theatre can impact a community, a person, a body, that there's something in everybody coming together for this common good and then being generous enough to really give it to an audience. I feel like I learned that here at HJT."

Phillips expresses how it felt for her to fully embrace the role of King Lear in an all-female cast.

"For me it was like knowing a piece of music that has always been played by one instrument and then hearing it played on another, and it's fantastic. There's no sense of it feeling like an experimental piece. It just feels absolutely accurate."

While in residence at the Harwich Junior Theatre, Arden Reese, Lanius and Schuld will lead an intensive performance workshop for young people in conjunction with "The LEAR Project." In this two-and-a-half week after-school workshop, participants will delve into the physical theater techniques of LILA's 360-degree fusion, working intensively with physical theater, voice, and movement techniques. Workshop participants will perform the culmination of this theatrical research in "The LEAR Project."

The LEAR Project plays Fridays and Saturdays, Sept. 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 8 p.m., and Sunday Sept. 16 and 23 at 4 p.m., with school matinees on Wednesdays Sept. 19 and 26 at 9:30 a.m. and noon.
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Lessons from 'Lear'
By Scott Dalton - The Cape Codder
Wed Sep 12, 2007, 04:17 PM EDT
Harwich -

When Andrea Arden Reese returned to Harwich Junior Theatre last year, it was like coming home. Little did she know then that it would be the first of several reunions. Reese returns to HJT this weekend as director of an all-female version of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, “King Lear.”

The production is unique not only in its gender casting decision, but also the melding of local and New York talent. Reese, who grew up as a student and teacher at HJT, is co-artistic director of Theatre Lîla, a New York theater company. Last year, she and fellow artistic director Jessica Lanius offered an “Inspiring Women” workshop in Harwich. The class examined what Reese calls the “360 degree self,” the physical, emotional and intellectual body, and how those elements co-exist within ourselves. Even then, Reese says, she knew she wanted the workshop to evolve “to a place where it could be seen.” As that idea began to germinate, Reese recalled an earlier dream: to stage an all-female version of “Lear.” “I wanted to take the same approach as we had in the workshop,” she says. “I wanted to deepen the work, coming from the same way of working. It’s taking the idea of the 360 degree self and seeing it in the container of ‘Lear.’”

Several of the students from last year’s workshop turned out for auditions, as did a host of other girls and women. Although Lanius and fellow Lîla actor Susan Schuld are central performers in the production, local actor Florence Phillips was cast in the title role. “Jess and Susan are my co-collaborators in this, but primarily we’re working from a Cape Cod base,” Reese says. “Our rehearsals have been intense. Watching the runs, I have been stunned. We’ve only been together for two weeks, but they are throwing their hearts out there; throwing their guts on the floor and going with where Susan, Jess and I are taking them.” Reese has nothing but praise for her cast, who she says have approached the production with a sense of urgency and intent, both necessary components for such an intense production.

She says the play, which examines the betrayal of a patriarch by his two daughters, has always struck her as fertile ground for an all-female interpretation. According to Reese, the themes explored in “Lear” remain as relevant today as they were in Shakespeare’s time. “We are all walking a fine line between compassion and desire; the line between selfish desire and the ability to serve the world. All of these characters walk that line and decide to step on one side or the other.” Although there is a very individualized component to the work, where each character decides which path to follow, Reese says she also sees a reflection in society, where women are coming to power, “All the stuff that Shakespeare is talking about is very real,” she says. “This is not archaic or ancient at all. It is what is essential to being human.”

For Reese, an all-female version of “Lear” is more relevant now than at another time in history. “We are entering a time of post-feminism, and determining what that means,” she says. “How do you own your space, truly, without screaming and yelling around it? Certainly what ‘Lear’ with women allows is the ferocity of women and the vulnerability.” She notes that the daughter-father betrayal of Shakespeare’s work becomes even more wrenching when transformed into a daughter-mother dynamic. “I think the cutting is sharper,” she says. “A daughter turning against a father is wrong, but a daughter turning against a mother is so wrong, so personal, so cutting. Girls are not always up front about their stuff. They’re more mercurial. There are more secrets and shadows. … [As a mother], Lear’s fall is in identifying with herself. Her daughters are manifestations of herself.” Even as she dissects her own work, Reese remains mindful of her goal to make Shakespeare as accessible as possible to modern audiences. She says she does this by getting back to the basics, as she does with every production she works on.

“Regardless of any style, the task as a director is you’ve got to look at what the story is. What are the relationships and how can I best serve that story and those relationships?” With Shakespeare, in particular, that means a grueling process of understanding each line of dialogue and marrying an action and emotion to those words. “I’m really doing my homework,” she says with a laugh. “I need to know what every moment is and how I can illuminate that in an exciting way. You need to ask, ‘What is this moment about, and how can I get that into action, and how can the text ride that action?’ You have action, and imagery,
which you can get lost in, and beautiful language.”

Even with all those layers, her actors have been pushing themselves with the same fearless intensity that is a hallmark of Reese’s work. “The place where we’re going to get to will be amazing,” she promises. “I feel lucky that Nina (Schuessler, producing artistic director) is interested enough in what we’re doing.”

And, of course, it is good to be home. She says she is eager to take the next step in the process she began so many years ago, even if she does not yet know what that step will be. “This place is foundational to me,” she says, gesturing at the building where she spent so many formative years. “It’s great to come back and play here, too. It’s good to know there’s room for this.
That there’s a place for us.”
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Theater Project Looks at How Gender Affects LEAR
Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll - The Cape Cod Times

The doomed title character of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is one of those towering, tear-up-the-stage characters that many top dramatic actors can’t wait to tackle. This fall, in New York City, it will be Sir Ian McKellen. On Cape Cod, it will be Florence Phillips. How does the tragedy about power, identity and facing the truth change when Lear is a woman?

That’s what Andy Arden Reese and her New York City-based Theatre LILA company are exploring through “The Lear Project,” a five-week collaboration with Harwich Junior Theatre and its adult resident company, Harwich Winter Theatre. All characters in this “Lear” are female, involving local actresses from ages 10 to 80. “When I imagined some of these words in a woman’s mouth, they all of a sudden took on a different meaning than coming out of a man’s mouth. ... They just resonate differently,” Arden Reese says. “With women within this world, within this text, what will that tell us and what can we learn from it?”

In addition to changing character gender, Arden Reese trimmed the script to 90 minutes and gave it a fictional modern “Asian fusion” setting, hoping the contemporary choice will help audiences link the play’s messages to today’s society. “To me, (the story) does come down to seeing the truth,” she says. “There’s a huge thematic thread about the inability to confront the truth, even when it’s put in front of you, and the lengths people will go not to see the truth and how that can lead to tragedy.” Her show’s ensemble chorus, in fact, keeps emphasizing the message of “open your eyes, see the truth and deal with the truth before it’s too late.”

Since childhood, Arden Reese acted, learned and taught at HJT, then kept in touch as she worked professionally around the country. She and Jessica Lanius founded Theatre LILA in 2004 to challenge audiences with a fusion of theater, dance, music and multimedia, and to emphasize the physical aspects of storytelling. Much of that has been involved in the intense weeks of HJT training for “Lear” principals and, after school, the ensemble. Theatre LILA’s first HJT collaboration took place last summer with a weeklong “Inspirational Women” workshop that Arden Reese has called “magical.” That was where she met Phillips and thought the longtime Cape actress would be perfect for an all-female “Lear” that Arden Reese had been hoping to stage for years.

This longer residency, with performances for the public and school groups, takes the partnership “to the next level,” and Arden Reese hopes their workshops can become an annual event. “What a great thing to be able to come back and bring back some of the work I’ve done since,” she says. “It’s like coming home.”
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