Do you know the difference between a Shakespearean "clown" and a "fool"?
I never pondered that question until a recent trip to New York City to binge on theater. Three Broadway shows I caught all coincidentally deal with performers struggling to bring about societal change in the face of perilous odds.
The Shakespearean clown/fool question is central to Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus. It marks the Broadway debut of out playwright and art drag performer Taylor Mac ( Hir; A 24-Decade History of Popular Music ), and Gary is an uncompromising mix of heady and lowbrow humor.
Three-time Tony winner Nathan Lane stars in the title role, a previously unnamed street clown/messenger from Shakespeare's original gory tragedy. Mac names him "Gary," and imagines that he has finagled his way out of the noose.
Gary is grateful to be hired as a maid to help his seen-it-all supervisor, Janice ( Kristine Nielsen ). Their task is to clean up piles of slaughtered bodies festering in the imperial banqueting hall.
But Gary gets inspired to rise above his rank to become a "Fool." As Mac emphasizes in Gary, a Shakespearean Fool can actually speak truth to power via humor as a ruler's personal entertainer.
What's wonderful about Gary is how Lane, Nielsen and their co-star, Julie White ( as the startled midwife Carol ), all expertly finesse the script's humor to move audiences to stitches. Director George C. Wolfe finds a playful balance between macabre camp and unsettling carnage to fully illustrate Mac's challenging comedy.
True, Gary might not be for all tastes. I counted six audience walkouts amid the play's parade of dead cadaver dick jokes. But I laughed a lot thanks to the expert performers and Mac's theatrically silly play that seriously questions how much of an impact an artist can have on society to prevent future massacres.
Gary was just nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Play. Yet another high-profile production was nearly shut out of the nominations.
A Broadway revival of Shakespeare's King Lear starring octogenarian Glenda Jackson ( a two-time Academy Award-winner and former Member of Parliament ) only received one Tony nomination. It went to Ruth Wilson for her dual dramatic and comic performance of Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, and of Lear's personal Fool.
Jackson previously won much acclaim in London for her return to the stage as Lear, but this Broadway revival is a different production. No doubt director Sam Gold ( a Tony Award winner for Fun Home in 2015 ) wanted this Lear to be as inclusive as possible.
So in addition to Jackson playing Lear, Tony Award winner Jane Houdyshell plays the cruelly deceived Earl of Gloucester. There's also colorblind casting in supporting roles, and hearing-impaired actor Russell Harvard plays the violent Duke of Cornwall with actor/director Michael Arden speaking the text while also translating into sign language.
The performers all really can't be faulted, and Jackson's rage-filled performance is something to be marveled at. But it's tough to make sense of this updated production.
I'm guessing that Gold wanted to use Shakespeare's portrait of a mentally unstable ruler to be a commentary on the current state of America. How else to explain the tarnished Trumpian gold unit set by designer Miriam Buether?
Unfortunately, Shakespeare's play doesn't provide tidy plot parallels to today. Especially since Lear is presented as a declining ruler to be pitied rather than vilified.
If this revival of King Lear is a noble miss, The Prom is surely a contemporary hit. This hilarious new musical comedy, which was just nominated for seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, amazingly isn't inspired by a pre-existing film or pop song catalogue. Yet it was recently announced that producer/director Ryan Murphy ( Glee, American Horror Story ) has obtained the rights to The Prom to make it into a Netflix feature film.
The Prom focuses on a group of publicity-hungry actors ( and their faithful press agent ) who seek out a good cause to deflect from their recent failures and disappointments on Broadway. The do-gooding New Yorkers descend upon Edgewater, Indiana, where the local PTA has cancelled prom because an out lesbian named Emma ( Caitlin Kinnunen ) had invited her girlfriend to go.
Rather than helping, these Broadway interlopers create more problems for Emma and her sympathetic principal, Mr. Green ( Michael Potts ).
There are plenty of laughs throughout The Prom, which reunites Elf the Musical collaborators Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin on the script, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Beguelin for the songs and Casey Nicholaw as the director/choreographer. Each of these artists clearly had a field day working together, while the performers wring every possible drop of comedy and drama from the tolerance-celebrating material.
Tony winner Beth Leavel oozes showbiz pizazz as the stage diva Dee Dee Allen, while Brooks Ashmanskas brilliantly balances the stereotypical and genuine as the gay actor Barry Glickman.
Christopher Sieber is great as the pompous Julliard graduate Trent Oliver, while Angie Schworer gets to inspire with Fosse-esque moves in the slinky number "Zazz."
The Prom being a musical comedy, things work out happily in the end. But The Prom ensures that Emma, the true heart to the show, eventually finds her own performing voice to combat homophobia and to change minds in her hometown.
Each of these productions show how performers can try to shape society for the better amid so much divisiveness and chaos. You can argue whether each show succeeds or not, but it is admirable that so many theater artists are trying to say important things within the commercial confines of Broadway.
Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus continues in an open run at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York City. Garyonbroadway.com .
King Lear plays through Sunday, July 7, at the Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., New York City. kinglearonbroadway.com .
The Prom continues in an open run at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St., New York City. Theprommusical.com .