BWW Review: KING LEAR is Tragically Comical at The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
The Atlanta Shakespeare Company met the time change and colder weather with their production of King Lear, one of Shakespeare's most notable tragedies. For those who aren't familiar, William Shakespeare's King Lear is about the old King retiring and giving his kingdom to his eldest daughters after banishing his youngest for not praising him. King Lear's older daughters plot against him until he goes mad and his madness spreads to others resulting in murder, adultery, suicide, war, and disfigurement. It's a story about the complicated relationships between parents and children that can be suffocating, isolating, and full of misunderstanding.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I was a bit confused by how funny one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies was. Of course, he wrote in some nice reprieves after particularly dark moments, but in this performance, the reprieves so outshone the moments of tragedy that they were all almost lost in-between the physical humor and well-timed reactions. The only truly tragic moment that pulled at my heartstrings was during the very last scene of the show as King Lear steps out with his daughter Cordelia's dead body. Even then, however, the moment was so short and so charged with the humor the show had already built up that it passed like a cloud on a breezy day rather than hanging like a dark fog that won't go away even after the rain has stopped
On that note, one of my favorite characters to watch was Edmund, played by Chris Hecke. His comedic timing and nonchalant delivery as the two-timing bastard drew audiences in and got them on his side almost from the moment he first gave us his signature side-eye. Hecke made villainy seem fun and sprinkled in some modern references to give the audience yet another way to connect with him. However, he wasn't able to quite get away from that humor once he had so thoroughly indulged it. Edmund's truly villainous moments garnered laughs and heckling instead of revulsion and boos, and his side-eyes stayed hilarious even as he cruelly doomed his father to torture.
Another character who was a joy to watch was Goneril, played by Anja Lee. She slowly burned from over-pleasing daughter to cold-blooded murderer and her gradual descent into wretchedness was in stark contrast to her sister Regan's swan dive with her husband Cornwall, played by Gina Rickicki and Tamil Periasamy respectively. There was a moment early in the show when the audience was on Lee's side and agreed with her that her father should be more considerate and not keep so many servants with him in his rowdy retirement. As the show progressed, however, her demands gradually became larger and less considerate until her want for something better believably drove her to murder and suicide. On the other hand, Rickicki's obvious lust for more and more and more made it almost impossible to side with her and not feel guilty about it.
Matt Nitchie played King Lear's humble friend Kent and brought to life a sense of duty and love one rarely sees offstage today. The noble Kent was a voice of reason until wrongfully cast out by King Lear. After that, Nitchie easily brought the same proud duty and love to Kent's new bedraggled disguise as he secretly followed the King around to ensure his safety. His new look was topped off with a wonderful Scottish accent that seemed to roll naturally off Nitchie's tongue.
The titular character of King Lear was played by Chris Kayser and while he is wonderful to watch work onstage, I felt as if this particular performance lacked the layers needed to truly bring this classic character to life. Kayser spent most of his performance in the grey area between King Lear's egotism and insanity to the point that neither extreme read completely on stage. Lear's madness during the storm didn't surprise me because it was anticipated in his behavior in the first scene with his daughters. There was a crescendo in his insanity missing so his final exhaustion and grief didn't feel as heavy as I expected from a Shakespearean tragedy.
Another performance that left me a bit bewildered was that of Gloucester played by Maurice Ralston. With a quick pace and quiet voice, I found it hard to fully understand his delivery throughout the show, especially during the beginning where he has the first few lines. The character also seemed to lack the extremes and layers that King Lear lacked which meant his moments of torture and toil didn't have the tragic weight I expected from them. When it came time for Gloucester's eye-gouging I'm sorry to say I felt nothing for the old man being bloodied on stage because I hadn't been able to connect with his character.
While the metaphorical tempest was more of a spotty storm, the actual tempest scene was filled with an edge-of-your-seat spectacle that gave me goosebumps. The lights dashed wildly from each side of the stage as the actors sprawled aimlessly on stage and the whole event was punctuated by a live timpani player. Every crash sounded like a real threat and it gave the whole scene a new element of immediate danger than you can only really feel in an actual emergency or during live theatre. I'm not sure Shakespeare had actual timpani player's in his day for this moment, but it made me feel the same electricity I expect a groundling must have felt during his time.
A smaller detail that caught my eye was the glint of the gemstones set in the character's crowns, rings, and pendants. Normally, costume jewelry is thought of as cheap and just enough to get a message across but these particular costume jewels added a sense of richness and substance. The way they glinted in the stage lights indicated that they were well cut and I had to do a few double takes because of how convincing they were. Small details like these add depth to a performance and make it easier for actors and audience members to submerge themselves in the world on stage. Having those stunning jewels winking at me from King Lear's crown made his power and status undeniable.
Finally, each show at the Atlanta Shakespeare Company has a signature drink offered in the lobby to accompany the show and they are typically amazing. To accompany King Lear, they served "Gloucester's Eye Blood," and it was, unsurprisingly, amazing. It had a wonderful mix of pomegranate and ginger beer that was sweet, refreshing, and surprisingly strong. It paired perfectly with the in-house desserts and the story of an old, angry king slowly losing his mind.
KING LEAR is playing at The Atlanta Shakespeare Company now through November 24th and is a Suzi Bass Awards Recommended Show. This production uses theatrical strobe lights and has an adult content advisory, a violence advisory, and a language advisory. Tickets are available on their website and include student discounts.