BWW Review: KING LEAR Kills at Guthrie Theater
"Disciplined" may seem an odd word to apply to a production of KING LEAR, a tragedy that is about personal and societal dissolution into madness, both individually and at large. But the current mounting in Minneapolis earns that moniker, both in actorly control and design restraint. The result is a masterful rendering that eschews excess but allows the human relationships to be bared and centered.
There is no nudity and no simulated rain storm and no onstage battle. Much of the emotional and theatrical magic is supplied by terrific, subtle coordination between genius sound designer Darron L. West (using elements provided by local composer Victor Zupanc) and legendary lighting designer Jennifer Tipton. Sure, they supply the audiovisual effects of the storm and of the battle, but they excel at giving us access to the inner workings of Lear's mind.
The show opens before lights out, with servants putting the finishing touches on a banquet table. The guests enter with a burst of laughter, dressed in white tie, military uniforms, and for the three women, elegant backless satin floor length gowns. (Costumes are by Jennifer Moeller.) The look is "European-ish, and 30s-ish" according to dramaturg Carla Steen.
Director Joseph Haj has chosen his next moment carefully: as his guests enter and swirl about the circular thrust, the Fool (Armin Shimerman) wordlessly moves to greet Cordelia (Kim Wong) with a blown kiss, which she catches, and accepts, with a smile. It's the last genuine smile we'll see for quite a time.
The first scene then unrolls with brisk clarity in the highly symmetrical space. Lear makes his fatal mistake: demanding that his three daughters each publicly declare their degree of love for him. Goneril (Kate Nowlin), the first born, complies; Regan (Sun Mee Chomet), the middle child, does too, after offering a dig at her sister. Each receives a third of the kingdom, which he shows them on a map. Then it is Cordelia's turn, the youngest, and his clear favorite. She upends his expectations and refuses to participate in this charade, responding to his query about what she can say to top her sisters with the word 'Nothing', a word that will surface repeatedly throughout this text.
It is during her explanation of this answer that we first hear a high pitched sustained single string sound, which proceeds to complexify; it will be joined soon by a low thrumming sound. It is as if we are actively hearing the strain and agitation in Lear's brain. His furious reaction-disowning and disinheriting his favorite daughter-cannot be prevented despite intervention from his most loyal counselor, Kent (J.C. Cutler). Lear is a man without much self-knowledge (Shakespeare gives us 'he hath ever but slenderly known himself') and a king who errs 'when power to flattery bows.' The results are disastrous, for him and for his kingdom.
Director Haj is in his second season as the eighth Artistic Director for this flagship regional theater. Back in the day, he performed as an actor here, and his respect for legacy is clear in the casting of two longtime Guthrie actors in the title role.
Nathaniel Fuller and Stephen Yoakam alternate in the demanding part, each also playing the bit role of the Old Man when not in the lead. The collegiality and depth of the company is clear, and this casting choice ensures not only a fully capable alternate if illness, accident, or the role's demands were to fell one actor for a bit, but also keep the company on its 'in the moment' toes, as they adjust to subtle differences in timing and presence of the two actors. I saw each perform the lead, in back-to-back performances on a single day. Both are fine. It seemed to me that Yoakam's performance has notes of childish glee in the first scene that the company responds to whereas Fuller is sterner, and more feared, initially. Both bring authenticity to the scenes on the heath and to the heartbreaking finale. As played here, that is quiet and intimate, and does not evoke sobs in the audience. There is a sense in which this production's restraint is Brechtian: we keep thinking, as we watch, rather than being swamped by emotion.
Haj has chosen to use elements of both the Quarto and Folio texts, which differ, in this production. There's a very effective mock trial of Goneril and Regan in the hovel on the heath, which Lear conducts, and in his mania he suddenly murders the Fool-a startling departure from tradition, but one that exposes Lear's tendency to erratic violence, as well as his apparent indifference to what he has just done. Moreover, it explains why the Fool does not appear in the second half of the play. (Evidence exists that in Shakespeare's time, the same boy played the Fool and Cordelia, and so they were never on stage at the same time: I like Haj's rethinking of this part.)
High contrast is also used to great effect, never more powerfully than in the horrific on-stage blinding of Gloucester (James A. Williams). Here, this is the first scene after intermission, and it begins with sound: the methodical clacking of a cocktail shaker in an elegant space, where Regan prowls in a sea-foam green slender satin gown with her husband, Cornwall (Howard W. Overshown), in formal dress. The elegance of the setting contrasts with the brutality we see these well-dressed elites perform, using tools that we see coming: a cocktail spoon and a stiletto heel. The hero of the scene is a servant who pays for his moral stance with his life. Shakespeare's willingness to blast open the equation of social status with virtue is one of the reasons his work is suited for all times and places.
It can be argued that the character who changes most in this play is Edgar (Jason Rojas), the legitimate heir of Gloucester. At his first appearance, he seems a bit of a dissolute frat boy, carrying a drink, with tie loosened; Shakespeare's word is 'fop.' This contrasts to his formally dressed bastard half-brother Edmund (Thomas Brazzle), a man in pursuit of revenge and power and utterly without compunctions. Edmund's perfidy leads directly to his father's blinding, and to Goneril's and Regan's vicious ends.
Edmund's lies force Edgar into hiding, where he undergoes transformation, both internal and external, as mad Tom o' Bedlam on the heath. The wandering Lear, still trying to make sense of his own changed fortunes, deems Tom a philosopher. And perhaps he is, or at least an empathic therapist: while serving as his own blinded father's guide to the cliffs of Dover, Tom sets up a mock suicidal plunge which brings his father back to an appreciation of life. In the play's final moments, he appears as the designated survivor, charged with resurrecting the kingdom.
I can't end this discussion of this fine production without mentioning the work of scenic designer Marion Williams, in her Guthrie debut. She's used elevators to move furniture elements and actors on and off set efficiently, leaving the space largely bare, save for a tall tapestry in the first scene that effectively hides the one bare tree that is on set forever after. (The one bare tree connects Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT with LEAR; a connection that is also recognized by the bowler hat worn by the Fool here, and central to the actions of Beckett's existential clowns.)
What dominates the set, and never changes, is the back wall surround: it's a massive gunmetal gray curved wall with staves and planks, as if we are inside a barrel. Or inside a hand grenade. Or inside a silo, one audience member supplied-perhaps quite apt here in the Midwest. Whether grain or missile is not clear. Certainly something built to withstand external pressure. Mysterious, evocative, and inexplicable, it is a suitable visual to accompany Shakespeare's great text.
This KING LEAR runs through April 2. Grant funding means that all 9th graders in the Minneapolis public schools will see this production, as well as many from Saint Paul. That, too, is excellent.
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson