note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Carl Rossi
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Girardi
There are some Shakespearean characters whose interpretation can not only set the tone of a production but can also pinpoint its strengths or weaknesses: Shylock. Ariel and Caliban. The Weird Sisters. Oberon and his fairy court. And Lear's Fool -– even though he appears well into the action. With each new production of KING LEAR, I wonder: what sort of social misfit shall we be handed? (New Rep's Fool of yesteryear was a tall, shell-shocked veteran to compliment its Little King.) Happily, Ubiquity Stage's KING LEAR gives us a motley Fool in the Elizabethan tradition, with no explanation necessary – a Fool was part of any royal household – and gloriously played by Gwen Larsen (who doubles as a silver-voiced Cordelia).
My thanks to director Richard Girardi for permitting this Fool to happen and to Ms. Larsen for being blessed with the vocal and physical ability to pull it off; for once, the Fool's riddles and jokes make sense to me – and they're comic, too. With this Fool at Lear's side, we are safely (!) in medieval England, not on Mars or wherever the winds may blow a director's fancy. The characters, subtly dressed as samurai warriors, may have wandered in from RAN or CROUCHNG TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, but the ground they trod on is the Bard's (I must admit, though, it's rather queasy when a character dies because his midriff is – symbolically – sliced open east to west from a samurai sword rather than suffering the quick thrust of a rapier). I hope that the most beautiful image in this production will be photographed and thus preserved: Lear, sitting glumly with head in chin, looking out at the audience, and with the Fool beside him, tenderly mocking in imitation. The image lasts but an instant but is indelible. If such a photograph is ever taken, I would like a print of it, please.
Numerous cuts have been made for this two-act production (which breaks after the Storm Scene). Here are several which should be reinstated: (1) the banished Kent's brief aside in I, iv, explaining why he is incognito (without it, the audience may now believe him to be an entirely new character; some may even think that Ms. Larsen's Fool is really Cordelia in disguise as well); (2) Cordelia's re-appearance in IV, iv; a most foolish omission, for not only has Shakespeare been building up to her return, this avenging angel is back to save her father and declare war on her sisters; and (3) the opening exchange between Cordelia and Kent at IV, vii, which is replaced by a pantomime between the two. On the other hand, in a play where Edmund usually gets all the laughs, this is the first LEAR I have seen where all of its dark humor has been set free with fascinating insights (though I could do without Goneril making "nyah-nyah" faces behind Lear's back).
In addition to Ms. Larsen, Dan Minkle stands out as the bastard Edmund, oily and charming, and in his final scene he uses his chest tones to frightening effect. I look forward to more of his Shakespeare in the future – and may he not play only the villains. A palm goes to Jackson Royal, even though he is not one of Nature's Lears. His voice is dry and limited in range but he uses it well; his readings are cadenced and intelligent though all too often in a minor key (the Storm Scene becomes a Drizzle). Not surprisingly, Mr. Royal's finest moments are the quieter ones: Lear's musings with or without his Fool, his reunion with Cordelia and, especially, their Pieta deaths (he and Ms. Larsen play very well together). Once I realized Mr. Royal would not be leading me through the terrors of old age and madness, I settled back to enjoy a kindly professor reading LEAR aloud to his class. I would like to see his Shylock or Ghost of Hamlet's Father, though. When Gregory Stuart's Edgar lets down his hair before taking flight, the effect is Christ-like, but enough of his compassionate lines have been blue-pencilled so that his scenes with the blinded Gloucester never touch the heart (though his "Poor Tom" is nicely contrasted with the Fool – not at all cut from the same cloth). The Goneril and Regan are brattish, not wicked: a good slap upside the head would put them in their place (pray, why does Goneril bounce up and down on her toes?). The other players have their moments, but in my mind I began to switch them around in roles for which they might be better suited, vocally and/or temperamentally: Kent for Gloucester; Gloucester for Cornwall; Cornwall for Oswald; etc.
Now seems as good a time as any to comment on something often overlooked in Shakespeare productions: exits. Directors, time your actors to make their exits on their last few words or have the next scene's actors beginning to enter upstage in montage; five seconds of exiting may not seem like much, but can you imagine an orchestra stopping the music to turn the pages of its score? In Shakespeare & Company's CORIOLANUS, one actress always soliloquized in the center of their wide, new stage and had to slide and hop sideways to give her a running start before jogging off into the wings. In Industrial Theatre's current MACBETH, a gathering of men enter along a wall of their playing space, say their lines, then mount the stairs and clump across the stage in a chuga-chuga line before descending the stairs on the other side and exiting out along the other wall – without dialogue. In LEAR, the big samurai battle scene is performed in silhouette to blood-red lighting and the bodies poetically fall, but since there's no curtain, the slain must rise and feel their way offstage in the dark – in a silence that lasts forever. If Shakespeare is to be performed on a bare stage with no curtain (which I welcome), then even the exit of a one-line servant must be part of a seamless whole. The bodies, like the words, must flow.