Theatre Mirror Reviews - "King Lear"

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Carl A. Rossi


by William Shakespeare
directed by Patrick Swanson

Kent … Allyn Burrows
Gloucester … Colin Lane
Edmund … Benjamin Evett
King Lear … Alvin Epstein
Cornwall … Michael F. Walker
Albany … William Gardiner
Goneril … Jennie Israel
Regan … Paula Langton
Cordelia … Sarah Newhouse
France … Gabriel Levey
Burgundy … Bill Barclay
Edgar … Doug Lockwood
Oswald … Bill Barclay
Fool … Ken Cheeseman
Curan … Matt Dickson
Old Man … William Gardiner
Messengers; Knights; Gentlemen; Servants … Matt Dickson; Gabriel Levey

A definitive stage production of KING LEAR may well prove impossible due to Shakespeare’s pushing back the theatre’s perimeters, this time around, and the title role being a demanding one of Biblical proportions (“Impossible,” gasps Sir in THE DRESSER when Norman tells him who he is playing, that evening). Shakespeare couldn’t have had his “wooden O” in his mind’s eye when writing this epic tragedy about an arrogant old monarch who must lose everything en route to his spiritual rebirth and redemption; indeed, it is hard to imagine today’s theatres, let alone the Elizabethan ones, containing all of the play’s primal force --- it has been classed alongside THE DIVINE COMEDY and Beethoven’s symphonies --- even those who only know LEAR on the page will admit to visualizing something far vaster than entrances and exits, speeches and choreographed battles (it’s relatively easy to stage the blinding of Gloucester but how to convincingly mount the tragedy’s most famous set piece, the Storm Scene?).

In casting the lead role, today’s directors tend to overlook the fact that Lear is/was a Warrior King and not a Chairman of the Board who has pushed all the right buttons; Lear has forged his empire by the sword and to now dole it out according to which daughter can flatter him best smacks of encroaching senility --- too late he grasps the true natures of all three daughters. Old illustrations depict Lear as a colossus who, though reputed to be four score and upward, can withstand the storm’s fury without catching cold, can still kill a man when necessary and can carry in the dead Cordelia and gently lay her down before expiring beside her. Five Lears have crossed my path, thus far; none of them have matched this iconography: the first was the late Arnold Moss, a renowned Shakespearean, in a student production at my college, over thirty years ago. Mr. Moss brought with him a larger-than-life persona, onstage and off, and the sing-song diction of the Old School (he can be heard introducing “Beautiful Girls” in the original cast recording of Mr. Sondheim’s FOLLIES); he was a charming, dignified man but closer in temperament to Prospero. Beginning in 2000, the other Lears arrived roughly at a rate of one per year: Austin Pendleton (New Repertory Theatre) was a Fool in king’s clothing and given to tantrums; Jackson Royal (Ubiquity Stage) recited LEAR aloud to us, his English class; Jonathan Epstein (Shakespeare & Company) contributed a King of shreds and patches woven, line by line, as he went along; and now the Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) boasts Alvin Epstein, an A.R.T. luminary, in the role.

No doubt Patrick Swanson’s casting was two-fold: Mr. Epstein is a Name in some circles and a Name can work wonders at the box office, especially for so young a company as the ASP; Mr. Epstein being four score himself might lead one to assume that he would shine a beacon in all of Lear’s corners but Mr. Epstein is not a larger-than-life actor but a finely-detailed, psychological one celebrated for his Beckett portrayals (the advertisements and programs feature Mr. Epstein’s face wearing what seems to be Hamm’s smoked eyeglasses from ENDGAME). Mr. Swanson begins the evening with the ensemble entering in ones and twos to kneel or bow in waiting attendance; after a lengthy silence, the diminutive Mr. Epstein descends as a figure out of Materlinck --- whether or not Mr. Swanson has aimed for satire, here (i.e. all that build-up for a mouse), first impressions are lasting ones and I settled back in disappointment; had Mr. Epstein already been seated on a throne when the house opens, coolly awaiting audience and actors, the proper stance might have been established. Lear must be such a powerful, untouchable presence regardless of size that his dethronement comes as a shock --- Goneril and Regan violate the divine right of kings which, of course, upsets the universe and equilibrium can only be restored when all offenders have been leveled. Not surprisingly, Mr. Epstein concentrates instead on rationing his stage-energy save for the rants where he gives his all; he vacillates between the wispy and the choleric and goes into Act Two with a voice already spent --- still, he makes it to the finish line despite turning Cordelia over to a stronger pair of arms. To be fair to Mr. Epstein, when he wanders in looking like Baby New Year, his physique could pass for three score rather than four and he is always watchable as a study in Old Age --- but there is another, better Lear elsewhere.

Still, the ASP production is the best staging of LEAR that I’ve seen, played arena-style in Boston University’s Studio 102, a handsome, lofty room with staircase, fireplace and vaulted ceilings, all touched up in decaying grandeur; the actors freely moving about on its mulch-laden floor evokes an immediate, primitive world better than a distancing proscenium could ever do (the costumes are a grab-bag of period and modern-day). Here, Gloucester sees through Kent’s disguise though no one else does, the Storm Scene means little more than lowering the lights, the mock-trial scene is a bore (it usually is) and there are some odd directorial moments: lest you wonder whatever happens to the Fool when he suddenly disappears, he is now stabbed before us by Lear in one of his rages, the blinded Gloucester wanders through the battle unharmed and how could Regan stab Goneril offstage when each character exits in the opposite direction (their bodies are dragged in, likewise)? The ASP ensemble remains a gathering of soloists --- all solid colors; no blended pastels --- and few of them are suited for their particular roles: if I could, I would move Colin Lane (Gloucester) over to Kent, Allyn Burrows (Kent) to Edmund, Ben Evett (Edmund) to Edgar, Doug Lockwood (Edgar) to the Fool and Mr. Epstein to Gloucester --- the role, not the town (but who would then be Lear?). Mr. Lane could then bellow to his heart’s content yet remain in character, Mr. Burrows would make a smooth villain and drop his Clouseau accent as the disguised Kent, Mr. Evett needs to play the occasional good guy to balance his being typecast as assorted nasties, and Mr. Lockwood is a better clown than a juvenile. As I recall, Ken Cheeseman played New Rep’s Fool as a shell-shocked soldier; his current one is along similar-enough lines with ankle-bells added for good measure but he has yet to integrate the Fool into the plot. William Gardiner brings such an amusing drollness to whatever he does that when the ASP switches over to the Comedies may he be given more to do than look bewildered as he does for Albany, and Bill Barclay is a properly smug, sullen Oswald that is just asking to be slapped.

Jennie Israel and Paula Langton are deliciously over-the-top as the wicked sisters --- the tall, buxom Ms. Israel is becoming an epic all her own and Ms. Langton has never been so Bette Davis-like as she is here --- though I doubt such campiness was either actress’ intention. (Interestingly enough, Ms. Israel dissolves into a tearful little girl cowering behind a pillar during Lear’s curse, not at all the harpy when cornered.) Sarah Newhouse’s recurring grimness does not scream “Cordelia” on paper yet she is so tearfully appealing in her opening scene that I sat up in admiration; her Cordelia hardens upon her return and could lead the French armies into England, herself --- a warrior-king’s daughter in a production that ironically lacks a warrior-king.

"King Lear" (29 September - 30 October)
Boston University College of Fine Arts, Studio 102, 855 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON MA
1 (866)811-4111

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide