note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Chuck Galle
King Lear is a treatise on insanity, foolishness and immorality. I don't know if Shakespeare intended to make one the cause and the others results or whether he was implying the inevitability of tragedy that follows them all, but; easily, this story is the human morality play with siblings at war, vengeance at hand, and general mayhem afoot. I tend to think of this play as a big blustering story about big blustering people; some very bad, a few very good, a couple very naive; and of them, one crazy, also. There is some disagreement among the several people I have read preparing to write this as to whether Lear's insanity or plain foolishness inform the improbable decision to divide his lands; improbable for both a pre-Christian era king and also to the 17th century Brits who had had their fill of divided loyalties. But he compounds the folly by parceling according to the professed affection of each his three daughters, enflaming a competition. Two gleefully embrace the game and as it turns out conspire to defeat the youngest one, Cordelia, who scorns such false reflection of love and adamantly rebukes her father, who casts her off like a torn cloak. His devoted courtier, the Earl of Kent, is summarily banished for attempting to dissuade Lear from this folly. Meanwhile, Gloucester, in a parallel sub-plot, misjudges the evil of his bastard son Edmund, and believes the lie that his legitimate son has plotted to murder him. Edmund, true to villainy, persuades the legitimate son, Edgar, to flee. Kent disguises himself and become Lear's servant, that he may still serve his lord. And this just the first two scenes!
Next, one bad daughter, Goneril begins the undermining of her father's authority, in consort with Oswald, her stewart, who relishes his villainous assignment. He is rude and insolent to Lear and lies to him to that Goneril may avoid him. But Lear won't take much guff, after all he is the King, and he strikes Oswald for his demeanor and is backed up by loyal Kent who shoves Oswald around a bit and trips him out the door. (Well done! say we all.) Then comes the Fool, the maker of Ironies, who speaks, I think, (but infinitely more cleverly) what is on the collective mind of audience. The King has been foolish, and the Fool becomes Kingly, and thus do we see more clearly this pitiable man. The fool, of course, precisely gets away with what Kent could not, and so the two are wedded. Lear, abused by Goneril, decides to go live with Regan and sends Kent ahead. We meet Albany, Goneril's husband, a mild soul dominated by his wife, whose character adds more deeply the ambiguity we confront in this play between the blindness of self and the possible clarity of being directed by love, or at least, by principles larger than immediate fulfillment. As the first act ends we find Lear taking more to heart the jibes of his Fool, and fearing for his own sanity. In Act two we find Edmund recognizing that impending rife between Goneril and Regan works to his benefit. Retrieving Edgar from hiding he sends him even further off, with more deceptions. On moves the plot as Regan and Cornwall subvert Gloucester, Kent is thrown into the stocks, Edgar disguises himself as a Bedlam beggar, Lear confronts Goneril and Regan but to no avail and determines to find terrible revenges against them, and exits into the heath.
In Act three we find Lear and the fool in the storm. This is the "famous" scene, with the line "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!" And we have Gloucester assisting Lear at his own peril, Edgar being found and acclaimed as man in his natural state, Gloucester being blinded and told of Edmunds treachery. In Act four he is reunited with Edgar and loose ends start to get tied up, but it all goes to pieces again with good people dying, Lear's insanity coming full-blown, and ultimately, the ending a tragedy is named for. Does evil feed upon itself? Is it worth it to be good? What reward is there if rewards are due? Who meets them out? What the hell good is life, anyway? These seem to me to be the questions Shakespeare forces on us in this play.
The New Repertory Theater production of King Lear opened Friday, September 22. I saw the matinee performance the following day. New Rep is a nifty, intimate theater nicely tucked into a former church. Producing Associate Adam Zahler told me the furthest anyone could be from the stage was the eighth row, and indeed, intimacy is the chief characteristic one feels upon entering the door. A comfy little lobby lies just beyond the ticket table, festooned with photos of past performances, head shots of the cast, the costumers initial sketches, the stage designers model, and even a small refreshments stand with cookies, brownies, soft drinks, coffees and waters. The walls (and ceiling too, I believe) are a somber flat black and the importance of subtle formality pervades the air. We have entered Theatre. Stepping further in, to the performance area reveals an auditorium that seats 130 to 140 in three-quarter round - or thrust - configuration, backed by a proscenium area. The sense of formality and intimacy blended is enhanced. The set design is filled with symbolism. Circles appear in several places, most noticeably the playing itself has been constructed as a large circle, with a sliver of moat running like a new moon along the left stage side - i.e. on the right of the stage from the audience eyes The circle is floored like a clearing in the forest with a animal skin splattered in the center. At the proscenium arch a Z shaped ramp spreads across the stage, low enough to serve as steps when approached from directly behind through the large invisible doors back there, or to be used as a ramp when approached from the wings. Fencing the playing area from the deep upstage area is a collection of thingees, kind of like a found object sculpture, old things, unrelated things, a jumble of things, one is tempted to say a folly of things. Over just off the playing area on right stage leans against the wall an almost incongruous ladder. And over on the other side, behind the moat corrugated thingees stand against the ramp - perhaps a lectern or !! - perhaps shields, awaiting use. Hanging just above reach with the confines of the deep stage area an embossed shield which will serve as an alarum gong to signal entrances and exits and other changes. Hanging subtly at the end of the stage up near the very ceiling are a pair of large dark gray rings. The stage is set. It is heavy. Laden with the cares of age. Bathed in gray blue light. Uncertain of itıs meaning, of it's future. Very present. Very, very present. The lights dim and the show begins.
At this point I must interrupt with observations concerning audience. It has become necessary in these days of modern times for some nice person to announce before the show begins that it is polite for those so mightily important to carry them into theaters to turn off (or at least set to vibrate) cell phones, beepers and the like. Please comply with this request. If you are with a friend whose hearing aid sometimes slips and whistles for attention and the wearer doesnıt hear it, please be polite to all and tell him or her to fix it. If you go to theater please arrive in sufficient time so that doorkeepers are not faced with the moral dilemma of dealing with you coming late. I prefer theaters which do not seat once the play has started no matter who the hell you are. Nuf said. On the whole I enjoyed this show. Some acting is so remarkable I will indeed remark upon it. Most singularly is the work of Ken Cheeseman, who won a choice part to begin with and made it the most endearingly wise Fool Great William could have wanted. He gave us all a lesson about how speaking Shakespeare needs to be more than giving it modern feeling cadence. Suiting action to the word and word the action he time-traveled us with ease. Much applause, Ken. Youıre to be watched. Laiona Michele as Cordelia makes a virtue of virtue; being real in the throes of Shakespeare is tough enough, but with body, voice and eyes she gave us what appears to be herself, sophisticated as her father's child, naive as her own adult. I don't believe the violin support is needed for her speech to Lear in the final act. James Butterfield's sincerity as Kent the loyal, his grim determination to serve his lord, his surprising agility with Oswald, his pleasure with his work all combine to make his performance simply wonderful. Richard Bowden rises to the blinded Gloucester with humility and simplicity. No one in this play is simple, but surely Gloucester, credulous, badly used, loyal to a failing friend is an actor's trap if viewed too simply. Bowden helps us remember that this man has a past that brought him to the actions of this play by fleshing him with character and depth.
I am less enamored of Austin Pendleton's rendition of Lear. These are hard words for me to write for I am certainly no expert on King Lear. Pendleton has probably done a fine job of Lear in terms of his interpretation of the part. But where I want to see an aging king, beginning a descent into insanity with a foolish act, I found an aging hippy, on an acid trip, smiling silly, halting - surely not just recalling lines - as if catching tracers on the eye, speaking low and inconclusively and as his madness grows displaying not a passion of the crazed but a foundering of the senile, a frustrated old philosophy prof; and at last, when found in fantastic dress - a "side piercing sight" - more, to me, a flower-child misplaced in age and time and lost to both. It is my own expectations that desire a Lear who rages in the storm like the storm that rages in his mind, and blows his protests to the gods like the great blows of wind around him; that thunders down the blackened clouds of awful fate in soul shattering disconsonance with the meager thunder of natureıs storm around him. Not a pleading lost old man whom I can only pity. I must be made to feel more for Lear than pity. Pity is one thing, but Kingliness another, and of Lear I must feel that it is King I pity, a man of great deeds and passions thrust into a vortex of damned fate and ignominy for no good reason on Godıs earth or else there be no God - or gods, or men who became kings. For Shakespeare has thrown us into the basest of all questions, here. Why? Why do bad things happen when men are good? Why does evil seem sometimes to win? These are not flower children questions that we ask ourselves with silly smirks and then go about our recreations, these are questions that plague us in our sleep and whittle away our touch on reality such that we need to retouch reality to maintain our sanity. Shakespeare has given us ourselves to grope with, not a few moments escape on a Saturday afternoon.
The rest of the acting is quite good and I would surely recommend to theater-goers that this show should be seen. Those whose names I have not mentioned nonetheless have done fine jobs, but already I am straining space and must address more aspects of this show.
The technical support, Mark Ketteran's lights, the sound effects (Mark also?) are superb, the storm scene demanding acclaim. The show is tight, despite it's unusual length, and there was no fidgeting or other expressions of discomfort when I saw it, and I must say that in itself is remarkable.
I must also comment unfavorably on the costumes, The designs shown in the lobby seems unrealized on stage, and I had the feeling they just didn't have time to make them all. I also failed to understand the use of the clear, sparkle-decorated masks worn by the "lesser characters" but removed as a part of the ending scene. Perhaps to suggest they are some sort of Greek Chorus? If so I would say it doesn't work.
I highly recommend this show despite the several negative notes included here. My difference with Austin Pendleton's interpretation of Lear should not be read as a slight of his ability to act. I would be pleased to see him in other roles I'm sure. The pacing, enthusiasm, sense of ensemble, technical support all make it a most worthwhile show.
Shakespeareıs King Lear plays at the New Repertory Theater, 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands, MA, through October 23. Tickets range from $25 to $32. Performances Wednesdays, 2:00 PM and 7:00 PM, Thursdays and Fridays 8:00 PM, Saturdays 4:30 PM and 8:30 PM, Sundays 3:00 PM and 7:30 PM. Box Office 617-332-1646.