note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Heleni Thayre
Go see "King Lear" at the New Rep! This production is full of excellent performances and gut-twisting drama. The players make Shakespeare come alive. The action is easy to follow and never boring.
The antics of the fool (Ken Cheeseman) are alone worth the admission. His daring barbs directed at the king seem as risky and dangerous as they are witty. James Butterfield as Kent is affecting in his loyalty to the old king even after being banished by him. Kent returns disguised as an amusingly costumed servant, providing a second comic foil to the increasing painful events that are unfolding on stage. Colin Stokes shines as the opportunistic and heartless Edmond. He is dressed in 1990's bad-guy garb --- a long black leather coat, jeans and a sweater --- and brings Shakespeare's words to life with glinting eyes and an amoral charm. Shawn Sturnick as Edmond's disinherited brother Edgar, "the (half) naked man," is wonderful, even as he undergoes a laceration of the ego that is difficult to watch. Richard Bowden is very good as Gloucester, father to Edgar and Edmund, whose loyalty to Lear and to the virtuous Cordelia (Laiona Michelle) is simultaneously a betrayal of Cordelia's sisters. The reprisal for this loyalty/betrayal forms the climax of the play; it is both shocking and effective.
Lots of adept physicality --- pushing, kicking, dragging, crawling, fighting and cavorting --- make the staging noteworthy and occasionally brilliant. Ken Cheeseman and Shawn Sturnick are especially talented in this regard.
Except for those of Kent, Edmond, Edgar, Gloucester and the fool, most of the costumes were appalling. You'd be hard pressed to see worse. Just ignore them. You'll soon be swept away by the words and the acting and forget about them.
As to King Lear himself, Austin Pendleton plays his role with a light touch, creating the image of a weak, demented old man rather than that of a tower of rage and madness. It is hard to imagine what in Lear's previous self was deserving of enough respect to cause the continued loyalty of Kent and Cordelia. But isn't that generally the case when personality his been altered by dementia? At first it's even easy to sympathize with Regan and Goneril (Julie Jirosek and Rachel Harker), the daughters who inherited Lear's kingdom. Their exasperation over Lear's debauchery and the hordes of unruly servants he keeps in tow seems almost reasonable. The two heirs' willingness to do evil emerges only gradually as they ally themselves with Edmond.
As events progress from one horrible deed and situation to another, Lear begins to regain his understanding and his insight. As he experiences what it is to go from having everything to having nothing, he is drawn in kinship to "Poor Tom", a fellow cast-out --- the remnants of what once was Edgar. Lear begins to see what he has done in banishing the faithful Kent and the loving Cordelia, and to see more clearly the faithless people he has trusted and has raised to power.....Sight lost, sight restored too late.
This is a story of betrayal and loyalty, of blindness and vision, of foolishness and wit, of evil and kindness, of power and loss. Above all, it is a story of the extremes of power and the abuse of power. As such it will probably remain relevant no matter what the date.