“King Lear,” although considered by many scholars to be William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, is always a tough sell in performance.
It’s a sprawling play, driven to its bleak denouement by labored plotting and a cavalcade of major and minor characters manipulated to serve the author’s ultimate goal: to depict the destruction of an aging king who sows the seeds of his own demise with rash, narcissistic decisions.
But it’s a tricky play to pull off. To date I’ve seen five productions of “King Lear,” including the current Heart of America Shakespeare Festival version, but not once has the tragic impact of the play hit home as it should. People suffer and die, but always the bloody events onstage seem emotionally remote.
The festival, which is staging “Lear” for the second time, has developed its own aesthetic rules in its 23 years of performances in Southmoreland Park. The staging necessarily adapts itself to a less-than-ideal outdoor venue surrounded by ambient urban noise.
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The actors are quipped with wireless microphones, which are both a help and a hindrance. And director Sidonie Garrett, apparently resigned to the fact that intimacy isn’t a realistic goal, fills the big stage with actors in horizontal lines in front of towering sets.
The result is a kind of pageant, with Mary Traylor’s vivid costumes and Ward Everhart’s lighting at times saturating the stage with color. This production provides moments of what might be called “spectacle-light,” when sword-wielding actors fill the stage with mock combat.
And “Lear,” as experienced theatergoers know, provides a singular scene of lurid violence when Regan, one of Lear’s evil daughters, and her husband, Cornwall, enthusiastically torture the hapless Gloucester.
The current production showcases some impressive performances, but on opening night the show’s pacing was dogged. A plot reliant on Machiavellian scheming, hunger for revenge and explosions of violence should build tension. But on Friday, the pacing rarely varied from start to finish.
John Rensenhouse anchors the production as Lear, bringing his customary gravitas, charisma and imposing presence to the stage. In the final scene we see Lear succumbing to depthless sorrow, but Rensenhouse finds rich opportunities for humor in earlier scenes when Lear goes “mad.” Lear may or may not be out of his mind, but at the very least he gets pretty loopy.
The plot, for the record, is put in play when Lear devises a plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, which will settle any question of hereditary rights before the fact. He will retain the crown and devote his remaining time to the pursuit of pleasure with his retinue of knights.
Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and her husband, Albany (Collin Vorbeck), will receive a third of the lands, as will Regan (Cinnamon Schultz) and Cornwall (Brian Paulette). The final third will go to the youngest daughter, Cordelia (Emily Peterson), who is unmarried but has two suitors.
Lear demands that each of his daughters profess her love to him, which Regan and Goneril do with false enthusiasm. Cordelia declines, saying that her love is self-evident. Lear flies into a rage and banishes her.
A secondary plot depicts Gloucester (Mark Robbins) and his two sons — Edgar (Jacques Roy), his legitimate heir, and Edmund (Kyle Hatley), who was born out of wedlock. Edmund is a skilled schemer who convinces his father that Edgar is plotting against him. Edgar retreats to the wilderness, where he adopts the loony personality of “Poor Tom.”
The point of tragedy is for us — the viewers — to recognize in a character like Lear our own vulnerabilities and failings. At the very least, “Lear” is a cautionary tale about a parent who sees in his children affirmation of his own ego.
Some viewers will certainly take that away from this slightly chaotic production. If so, then the show has done its job. But it’s a fairly long haul. The Friday night performance clocked in at just under three hours (including a 15-minute intermission).
Of the supporting performances, Schultz seems to relish her villainy, while Martin-Cotten demonstrates the most control and the best Shakespearean voice of any of the women. Peterson makes less of an impression as the virtuous Cordelia and, at certain incongruous moments, projects a contemporary sensibility at odds with the play’s ancient setting.
Hatley, although he lacks a voice suited to Shakespeare, delivers an entertaining, inventive performance as Edmund. Roy matches him with a quirky take on Edgar. Roy, who is also the show’s fight director, delivers a remarkable physical performance.
Robbins handles Gloucester with his customary finesse, and Matthew Rapport makes an appealing, often amusing Kent, Lear’s disguised ally. Paulette plays the cold-blooded Cornwall memorably, and Ben Auxier makes an impression as the lackey Oswald. Vorbeck is clear and workmanlike as Albany.
Phil Fiorini delivers some of his best work as Lear’s Fool. This is an exceptional comic/sad performance aided considerably by Traylor’s medieval clown outfit with a cockscomb. The Fool is a crucial character — only he can speak the truth to Lear in the form of riddles and jokes. And he, in turn, is the only person Lear can trust.
Together, Fiorini and Rensenhouse depict this complex, affectionate relationship vividly.