SHAKESPEARE is happening all over. And not just because 2016 is the 400th anniversary of his death. Visionaries like Peter Brook and Joseph Papp have sparked a rebirth of interest with productions which prove that, done with commitment and imagination, Shakespeare is still gripping drama with a startlingly universal relevance.
Pacific Rep’s nightmarish new version of King Lear is a case in point. It reflects director Kenneth Kelleher’s gifts as a bridge builder. Like his exciting Twelfth Night at the outdoor Forest Theatre, this new Lear starts with a setting and images we recognize and relate to and then uses these familiar colors and values to lead us into powerful events and values that have nothing to do with period costumes or clipped British vowels.
Entering the Circle Theatre, you think you’re going to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You face a room littered with the paraphernalia of a psychiatric ward preparing to offer a patient some elaborate role play therapy. Security doors belch out a menacing buzz as they open to admit uniformed doctors, orderlies and a pair of ward nurses, Goneril and Regan, fitted out like clones of Nurse Ratchet. Directed to their assigned seats, the staff face the strident bearded egomaniac who is to be the subject of the evening’s exercise and begin to read their parts.
A good Shakespeare director doesn’t just build bridges, he raises questions. Mine, at this point in the action, was whether we were going to spend two and a half hours hearing intelligent but dramatically inexperienced amateurs read the play. I needn’t have worried. With the arrival of a visiting family member named Cordelia—actually the sister of Goneril and Regan—scripts disappear and the cast begin to give powerful and terrifying life to the characters.
Equity actor Julian Lopez-Morillas, who specializes in Shakespeare, is an authoritative Lear, volcanic in his rage at the rejection by his beloved youngest daughter’s refusal to flatter her way into a juicy inheritance and then the discovery that her two smoothly compliant sisters are a pair of scheming serpents.
As Goneril and Regan, Julie Hughett and Lyla Englehorn wisely soft-pedal the vitriol and villainy in early scenes. Their objections to having a geriatric parent park himself on them in monthly rotation, bringing along a hundred drunk and disorderly knight retainers, are not unreasonable. Once they’ve won that round, the gloves are off and the two offer portraits of evil that are even worse than the self-assertive machinations of the man they both fall for, a behavioral and biological bastard named Edmund, nasty but hilarious in the hands of Justin Gordon.
Shakespeare parallels Lear’s descent into terror and madness with the domestic and concurrent political collapse of Edmund’s father Gloucester, a likeable but slyly lascivious chief courtier, played with typical insight and sympathy as well as a charming Yorkshire accent by Howard Burnham.
The show offers a generous helping of Brit dialects besides Burnham’s. Jeffrey T. Heyer gives a fine picture of hot tempered loyalty as Kent, so faithful to his wounded monarch that he takes on a disguise and a convincing Scots brogue to serve the royal boss who has banished him in a fit of rage. Then there is an exciting Sean Patrick Nil as the dastardly Edmund’s banished legitimate half-brother Edgar, who strips to his shorts, smears his body with mud and speaks West Country English as he befriends his deluded and sightless father.
The production as a whole is most effective in the first act build-up of events which one by one puncture the aging Lear’s arrogant self-assurance. Where I feel it sometimes falters is in the important central section where the crazed old man is pushed out into a punishing thunderstorm and discovers an unsuspected compassion and reality through being stripped of everything he’s previously treasured.
Kelleher and the company remind us afresh that we’re not in a real storm but in a clinical re-enactment of a psychiatric patient’s madness. And this happens, effectively enough, simply with the wild and unpredictable swinging of hanging overhead ceiling lamps in the psychiatric ward. They sway and flicker accompanied by storm effects that enhance the nightmare atmosphere, but often at the cost of clear information about what the characters are thinking and feeling.
Lear’s heartbreaking prayer, beginning, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’re you are…”, surely marks a discovery that the fancy trappings of his lifelong power have been bought at the cost of the desolation and suffering of the poor. Faced with all the noise and activity, Lopez-Morillas can only deliver this speech in a confused and angry bellow which cancels out a lot of its power and meaning.
The middle section of the play as a whole seemed to lack contrast and color. The unrelieved shouting indicated that people were angry and suffering, but it all tended to happen on the same monotonous noise level. One result, however, was that you felt an enhanced emotional impact when it finally came to Lear’s quiet and touching reunion with the banished Cordelia, played with beautiful clarity and force by Jennifer Le Blanc.
This youngest and best loved of Lear’s daughters has not, as in most productions, been having an extended absence offstage. Kelleher homes in on the fact that the Fool, who is Lear’s constant companion in exile, only appears after Cordelia has been sent off to France. And when she returns to oppose her sisters and the scheming Edmund, the Fool is usually assumed to have died. All this has suggested to scholars that the same boy actor may have played both roles in the original staging of the play. Kelleher goes a step further. The departing princess strips off her court finery and openly takes up the Fool’s tattered leather cap and rags. Lear even recognizes the ruse moments before he dies. Like the banished Edgar pretending to be a naked madman while he supports his misused father, this Cordelia dons rags and accompanies her parent in his agonies on the heath. As the Fool, Le Blanc delivers not only the expected ironic barbs at Lear’s stupidity, but physically enacts some blatantly sexual material with a finger-lickin’ gusto that arouses second thoughts about the education and upbringing of the well-loved and plain spoken Cordelia.
This is a stark and arresting production that makes you think and feel. It continues through November 6th.