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BWW Review: Shakespeare's Epic Tragedy KING LEAR at GLT is a Moving Experience

Roy Berko
(Member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle)

In his program notes for Great Lakes Theater's production, director Joseph Hanreddy states, "KING LEAR, with its titanic range of emotional, vast physical landscape, dark ironic humor and snarl of mysteries, contradictions, ambiguity and paradoxes, render it one of the theater's greatest challenges to realize in performance." To his credit, Hanreddy creates a production which lives up to the challenge.

He develops a staging that clearly showcases how, "every character from monarch to lunatic beggar, is set on a struggle for sanity and survival in a ravaged kingdom."

The story centers on Lear, an aging King of Britain, who takes the bold move of abandoning the throne and plans to divide the land he owns between his three daughters. In an act of ego, he requests each of his children to tell him how much she loves him. The oldest two, the conniving Goneril and Regan, both give grandiose flattery. The youngest, Cordelia, his favorite, refuses to play the game and states she has not words to describe her love. Lear, misunderstanding her intent, disowns Cordelia, leaving her unmarried and penniless.

This turn of events starts Lear into a downward spiral toward despair and a mental breakdown, causes intrapersonal, inter-family and inter-country conflict. Goneril and Regan fight for power, Lear flees to a heath during a great thunderstorm, accompanied by his Fool and Kent, a loyal nobleman. As happens in Shakespeare tragedies, all does not end well.

Filled with such motifs as the role of political authority, family dynamics, mental instability, betrayal, betrayers who turn against each other, reconciliation, and blindness (real and figurative), KING LEAR is a brutal play filled with human cruelty, madness and death. It asks, "Can there be justice in the world?" The answer is a terrifying uncertainty as the evil Goneril, Edmund and Regan die, but so does the good (Cordelia).

The script has one of the most tragic endings in all of literature. At the final curtain, the stage is littered with dead bodies, and no clear "winner" emerges in the life conflict.

The play is character and author driven. Shakespeare defined Elizabethan tragedy. Such plays as HAMLET, OTHELLO, MACBETH and ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA follow his pattern. The tragic hero must be of high status, he must have a flaw, must cause the central conflict of the play, he must become aware of his flaw, and he and/or the families, and the political structure must be destroyed.

Lear's basic flaw is his valuing appearance above reality and flattering words over true love. Though Lear finally understands Cordelia's love and tries to save her, his efforts are too little and too late. He does become a humble and caring individual, but is incapable of regaining his throne and reigning again as a powerful and respected king. His family and country are left in chaos as a result of his actions.

An examination of the play's major characters aid in understanding the plot. Cordelia is a devoted, kind, honest beauty who, in contrast to her sisters Goneril and Regan, who are neither honest nor loving, refuses to manipulate her father for personal gain. She becomes a victim to a heartless and unjust world.

Hanreddy's directing centers on his taking a classic play and giving it present day interpreting, without changing the language. Though the dress is updated, it's clearly a Shakespearean era tale, but with modern sensibility. It is amazing how the Bard, before the development of modern psychology, was capable of crafting many characters who fit into the present day classifications of modern mental illness, complete with the cultural underpinnings of those societal deviances.

The GLT production is well acted and nicely paced. From the "impending doom music, to the serving of Kentucky Fried Chicken during the dinner following hunting, the technical aspects were visually and emotionally outstanding.

Martha Hally's costumes set the proper modern/traditional moods. Paul Miller's lighting created storms and illusions that build the ever maddening mood. Sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen effectively assaulted the ears during the storm scenes. Linda Buchanan created a set which looked imposing and solid with large panels of opaque material set inside sliding doors. As Lear disintegrated so did the set.

Unfortunately, the Friday evening I saw the show, just as the action was racing toward its stormy climax, an announcement informed us that there was a technical issue and there would be a five-minute pause. Several minutes into the void, two large pillars, center stage, fell dramatically, creating a mighty roar. It can only be assumed that these were to fall as the lightening and thunder roared and Lear descended into further mental angst and psychological destruction. Of course, the pause took much of the power out of the final scene.

The performances were excellent. Aled Davies built the character of Lear through texturing and nuance, so that his ride from monarch to madness was like a roller coaster ride with highs and lows, and a minimum of over dramatization, which is a tendency of many actors who play the role.

Laura Perrotta and Robyn Cohen were evil incarnate as Goneril and Regan, Lear's oldest daughters. They are matched in their wickedness by Dustin Tucker, as the Duke of Cornwall, Regan's husband, and Jonathan Dyrud as Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son who is a Machiavellian character willing to do anything to gain land and power. Edmund has many of the characteristics of Shakespeare's other clever and evil villains, such as Iago in OTHELLO.

Cassandra Bissell realistically developed Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter, as compassionate and well intentioned who, even in banishment, does not reject her father.

The scene in which The Earl of Gloucester's eyes are plucked out by Cornwall is often over-done, causing much audience repulsion. As masterfully performed by David Anthony Smith, with the aid of some effective special makeup effects, the scene was agonizing, but not repulsive.

Tom Ford nicely develops Lear's Fool into a figure of both humor and compassion.

Capsule judgement: As he emerges from prison carrying Cordelia's body, Lear howls in despair ranting, "heaven's vault should crack" because of his daughter's death. It does not, and are we left with no answers. It is this lack of unexplained horror that makes KING LEAR such a powerful, maybe even excruciating play, and a classic example of Shakespeare at his finest. Joseph Hanreddy, his cast and crew make this a fine GLT offering.

KING LEAR runs through November 1, 2015 at the Hanna Theatre. For tickets: 216-664-6064 or

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