Friday, February 24, 2017

A Lunatic King Lear

Shakespeare's searing indictment on the moral limits of power is incredibly timely. 

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Some narrative arcs seem to remain essential to the human condition. Love, death, fear, and the quest for power are among the most elemental and recurrent of these narratives; they pop up over and over again in art stretching back to the beginning of recorded history. When it comes to dissecting the limits of these elements of the human condition, no one quite does it like Shakespeare.

King Lear, now showing on the Guthrie's main stage, may not be the best known of Shakespeare's tragedies (that award would have to go to Hamlet, Macbeth, or maybe Othello in certain circles), is probably the best example of the limits of power and filial love. King Lear is an aged king who is slowly (but violently) slipping into dementia. As he names his successors, his youngest (and most beloved) daughter Cordelia refuses to ply him with flattery; as a reward, Lear marries her to the lowest bidder to be banished forever and is left with his two elder daughters Regan and Goneril, two wolves in sheep's clothing who take advantage of their father's madness and fight their way to power. King Lear manages to escape their worst attempts on his life, spending  his time wandering in the moors and forests among the common folk with a few close friends, but Cordelia does not; after returning with an army to rescue her father from her sisters, Cordelia loses the war and is killed after capture. Cordelia's death provides the king's final moment of clarity and closes the play, with his family rent into tatters and his end-of-life prospects lonely ones.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Stewing within this Lear family drama are several key players. One is Gloucester and his sons, one an heir (Edgar) and one a bastard (Edmund). Edmund crawls his way to the top of his family, but only after banishing his brother, betraying his father (whose eyes are put out), sleeping with both of Lear's daughters, and finally being killed by Edgar in a fit of vengeance. Kent, Lear's most loyal adviser (who is banished with Cordelia when he speaks up for her), remains behind in disguise to protect Lear and help Cordelia. Cornwall, Goneril's husband, is fatally wounded while torturing Gloucester and his keen military mind is a key reason that Cordelia's army is defeated.

Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on. And it would be easy to be lost in the action without a strong hand to steer the ship. This production has two actors playing King Lear. Although it would be a fascinating study to see both, I was only able to see Nathaniel Fuller, and he provides a marvelous performance. Fuller completely disappears into his role, riding the waves of Lear's emotions, careening between anger, fear, disgust, timidity, love, and vengeance. It is a masterful performance that will keep you riveted throughout the show, and despite Lear's cruelty gives him a tenderness that you can't help but want to protect.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The surrounding cast is equally excellent. Sun Mee Chomet (Regan), Kate Nowlin (Goneril) and Kim Wong (Cordelia) are delicious as Lear's daughters, each providing a different foil to Lear's erratic behavior. Their strong performances actually turn the play into a treatise on the expanses (and limits) of female power in society; each uses whatever gifts she has to try to wend her way back to the throne and to Lear, and these actresses use every inch of their scripts. A note to the Guthrie: there is not a *single* production photo of these ladies (or 90% of the rest of the cast) - please add one, they deserve to be seen!

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The young men provide the show's brightest sparks. Jason Rojas* utterly unrecognizable as Edgar in one of the most transformative performances I've seen in ages. Thomas Brazzle is delicious as the deceitful Edmund, slithering between the action and piercing the audience with his fiery taste for power. And Howard Overshown is stately and dangerous as Cornwall, truly embodying the possibilities of a man who has nothing to lose and no shame to fear. Although not in the youthful contingent, James A. Williams is righteous as Gloucester, providing the show's only true loving, fatherly presence and a comforting haven from the ruinous action for the rest of the show. And J.C. Cutler is steadfastly heartwarming as Kent, the straightest arrow of the show and the provider of some much-needed comedic relief at key moments.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

The theme for production design seems to be "simple but truly luxurious." Marion Williams' spare set recalls Bane's tower in The Dark Knight Rises or some far corner of Westeros, with a tall, dark, concrete tower set sparsely with lights and a single, leafless tree. It's an eerie backdrop for the action and wisely keeps all focus on the drama on-stage. Jennifer Moeller's costume design can only be described as opulent and truly covetable; each character is given simple outfits made of such high quality that they gleam from the stage, particularly two drop-dead-gorgeous fur coats. It lends an opulence and familiarity to the cast that helps ease the centuries-old language into the modern age. Jennifer Tipton's lighting design, combined with Darron West's sound design, is subtle but pointed, each respectively leaving the stage awash with an eerie aura. And three cheers for a production team that is 75% spearheaded by women; like the truly diverse cast, this was an awesome thing to see while flipping through the program.

Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

With society seemingly careening every day nearer and nearer to the brink of disaster, it's impossible not to see the tragedy of King Lear as some kind of ill fated omen. What happens to a country when the man (or family) ruling a nation becomes corrupted, either by madness or lust for power? At what point is someone's inherited title overcome by their inability to do their job? What is the line between sanity and madness? At the end of the day, who is responsible for ensuring that citizens are kept safe from harm? Where is the line between betrayal and necessary honesty? I think Artistic Director Joseph Haj summarizes the legacy of King Lear best in his program notes:

"I think that the play, finally, is about how close our worse selves are to our better selves, about how fragile a civilized society can be and how easily it can descend into barbarity and irrationality. In each one of us there is a capacity for righteous acts and regretful ones, for both sanity and madness. And in times of turmoil, when a country falters and a family breaks, those distinctions become perilously thin."

This King Lear is an essential treatise on the limits of power and the necessity of a thoughtful, guiding hand to protect a nation's best interests when its leaders have run amok. Written nearly two hundred years before the American experiment began, King Lear could not have more to say to an America struggling with the limits of a man and an office descending into madness. This is marvelously staged production and beautifully performed Shakespeare. Please make sure to go before the show closes on April 2. More information and tickets can be found by clicking on this link.

*In my initial review I listed Nathan Barlow in this role; he was replaced at the last minute. Sorry for any confusion. 

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