BWW Review: KING LEAR at Actors' Shakespeare Project
Upon entering Chelsea Theatre Works for Actors' Shakespeare Project's King Lear, the audience is immediately immersed in a world that could be passed off as Laurie Anderson's riff on 'man cave'. An eclectic installation of vintage desk lamps and exposed light bulbs pulsate, casting shadows over a pile of radio transmitters, a neglected piano, and an assortment of discarded knick knacks that set designer Jon Savage has seamlessly incorporated into the deep-stained wood encircling the playing space. A vintage projector noisily clicks through slides edited by Cameron Willard showing images of monkeys in cages, minarets of mosques, and landscapes of deserts as David Reiffel's vapory soundscape throbs in the air. When Robert Walsh stumbles in barefoot as King Lear, it is apparent to whom this space belongs.
King Lear tells the story of an elderly king who, enraged at his treatment by his three daughters, none of whom seem to respect him as he feels they should, enters into a state of madness that spells tragedy for many of his subjects. Walsh is not the first actor who comes to mind for the role of Lear. He is not even the first actor among this company of seven who would be type-cast in the role. His voice is a powerful baritone, his presence is undoubtedly confident, and despite his white hair, none would first describe him as feeble or decrepit. However, his Lear is not to be messed with and not to be missed. His ravings make him seem entirely ageless, waxing between Brad Pitt in Fight Club and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This agelessness makes him seem dangerous and reframes a stilted fairytale dynamic of a king withdrawing favor from the figures of his daughters to a capable, if unstable, man enacting aggression against a real group of women.
When his daughter Goneril (played nobly and soberly by Jade Guerra) warns:
"You see how full of changes his age is; the/
observation we have made of it hath not been/
thoughts are not drawn to an age at which senility sets in. Instead, a middle-aged king seems to be lashing out against the women in his life, and one cannot help but think of the defensive tactics thrown around by many of the entertainment industry's elite when corrected or confronted for past abuses by those they view as inferior. In the final scene before intermission when Lear shouts:
"I am a man/
More sinn'd against than sinning."
it occurred to me that Lear is very much a self-made victim of the mythological "cancel culture" we are warned of in 2019. Walsh's baby-boomer Lear, crouched in his den of WWII collectibles and gadgets from the the 70's, cannot deign to be mistreated by his inferiors, and it is a performance that keeps the audience on edge, genuinely unsure of what he will do next. His "old-ness" feels real, and it feels aggressive, dangerously close to the politicians we see on television dismissing the reasoning of those younger than them.
Marya Lowry brings an (also) ageless warmth to her portrayal of both Cordelia, Lear's favored daughter, and The Fool (a doubling that has been analyzed popularly by scholars of Shakespeare's work and can be traced back to an original observation published by Professor Alois Brandl in 1894). Lowry finds the ways in which the two roles can exist on the same plane while clearly portraying them as individuals with guile. Her love for the King is evident in both parts and their scenes together are dynamic highlights of the production.
The true stars of the show, second only to Walsh and Lowry, are Sarah Flanagan and Jesse Hinson, the violence consultants on the piece. The stylized fight sequences are mesmeric and successfully convey suspense and danger without the use of any weaponry. Even the duel between Edgar and Edmund (in this production both portrayed by Louis Reyes McWilliams, a doubling that has not been theorized about for the past century) intensely holds the audience's focus. Partly because of McWilliams' heroic commitment to the two roles and partly because of the grotesque, contorted choreography, one actor successfully communicates a two person duel without drawing snickers from the crowd as they recall Patrick Star outside of the Salty Spitoon. In fact, the sequence is disturbing, violent, and appropriately climactic.
While the first half seemed stylistically disjointed, smattering together storytelling techniques that flew out unexpectedly and unevenly, director Doug Lockwood settles into one style and maintains it in the second half, delivering powerful images that carried the story succinctly. Overall, the ensemble bears the fundamentals Boston has come to expect of Actors' Shakespeare Project: deeply human connections on stage, a clear commitment to narrative, and a genuine sense of gratitude for coming to be present as their tale unfolds. However, the minimal design draws attention to extraneous choices in staging that take away from the otherwise impactful moments. The use of overhead projectors, painters' tarps, and sand seem clever, but not polished enough to seem brilliant or fully effective. The staging of the famous storm scene, with the ensemble dumping pebbles between glasses around the audience, perfectly summarizes the way in which stage magic which may, at surface, seem simple, minimal, and direct, can become superfluous and even distracting.
On top of this, Lockwood's program note touches on wanting to tackle "impossible seeming doubling" with a troupe of seven actors. The actors vary in their successes of playing multiple roles, many of whom interact with each other in pairs. While Bedlam's The Crucible has effectively tackled this challenge, many of the ensemble characters in King Lear seem to be, at their best, embodiments of stills snagged from a lesser-known Martha Graham piece, frozen in one exaggerated position, and at worst, impersonations of some of Moira Rose's more histrionic behaviors on Schitt's Creek, snapping their heads back and forth while manically shifting vocal registers. Nondescript linen costumes by Jessica Pribble blend the ensemble together as a troupe and roles auspiciously disregard the ages of the actors portraying them, however, (in classic Boston theatre style) the approach to gender performance feels heavy and disappointingly dated.
Overall, no qualm I had with the production deterred from the power of the final couplet of the tragedy, recited by McWilliams, by sight, the youngest of the seven actors. Lockwood has delivered a production that concurrently disregards and embraces age, which imbues these lines with new meaning.
"The weight of this sad time we must obey;/
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say./
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young/
Shall never see so much, nor live so long."
King Lear runs through October 27th at Chelsea Theatre Works.