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Review: KING LEAR at Wallis Annenberg Center For The Arts

Turning the Tables on a Misbegotten LEAR

Review: KING LEAR at Wallis Annenberg Center For The Arts

If the new production of KING LEAR starring Joe Morton had been a movie or TV event, it might have carried one of those American Humane-esque warnings in the end credits: "No furniture was harmed in the making of this movie." As director John Gould Rubin's riff on Shakespeare's tragedy at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is unfortunately 100 percent a live event, I can tell you that the manhandled tables and chairs serving as the centerpiece of LEAR'S wasteland are beaten senseless. Chairs are knocked over, tables climbed and jumped upon by multiple characters, runners yanked and dishes scattered. So many times does someone smack a seat or truck with a table, that one almost starts to pity these inanimate objects. Even Mark Harelik's Earl of Gloucester fares better than the furniture and (not exactly a spoiler alert) the man gets his eyes gouged out.

If you are wondering how anybody with a heart not made of flint could spend three plus hours in the company of some of English literature's most tragic characters and emerge weeping only for the abused tablecloths and flatware, well, dear reader I share your bewilderment. Rubin's production has a group of talented actors and designers, many of whom are not new to the works of Shakespeare. And the idea of casting Morton (SCANDAL, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET) in the title role is an outstanding one. May he get the opportunity again in a production that is light years away from this one.

What goes wrong at the Wallis? Just about everything. This production, billed as a "reinvention," is big on cellphones, hashtags and a thematic overlay of a world in environmental as well as moral crisis. In scenic designer Christopher Barreca's configuration, the Wallis's Bram Goldsmith Theater seats audiences both at the back of the stage and facing it. The actors join them in the front rows, sometimes playing directly to them. An underscoring soundtrack by Danny Erdberg and Ursala Kwong-Brown is unrelenting and frequently distracting.

Despite some instances of inventive staging and plenty of technical blares and flashes, Rubin's production is as wrongheaded as it is irritating to sit through. Even granting that KING LEAR is rarely a quiet evening (what with all that thunder, howling and cursing), Gould's players spend copious amounts of stage time emoting and not in service of generating audience sympathy. one almost wonders whether individual actors have been told "Always remember, Edmund is the real hero of the story" or "No, no, Shakespeare actually meant to write THE REGAN SHOW." So over-the-top is the acting, so assaultive is the physical production, it feels like someone is exacting revenge on the play.

The production employs seven actors, only two of whom (Zachary Solomon and River Gallo) are doubling roles. The production's adaptor/reinventor, while keeping Shakespeare's language, has dispensed with several characters both virtuous and rotten. So it's goodbye Kent, Oswald, Albany and Cornwall (though there is still talk of Goneril being married). Despite an assortment of arresting contemporary-skewing costumes designed by X. Hill (Emily Swallow's Goneril's is particularly badass), River Gallo wears the same white pantsuit in the guise of both the Fool and Lear's banished daughter, Cordelia. If you know the play, this shouldn't be too much of a problem, but it can make things a little confusing, particularly in the closing scene when one character is dead onstage, the other is dead offstage while the actor playing both is alive and talking.

Things kick off with Rafael Jordan's tearing into Edmund's "Thou Nature art my goddess" speech, bouncing on and off the aforementioned tables and hashtagging #standupforbastards which he posts on the two projection boards flanking the stage. Basically the engine of the play, Edmund also does most of the recording of scenes, sticking his cellphone in people's faces to capture close-ups and reactions. Most of the characters are working their devices at some point throughout the play , sending texts or responding to disaster alerts.

The arrival of Lear, his daughters and Gloucester for the first act kingdom division puts the tables to their most inventive use. Previously set up adjacent to each other as though for a small dinner party, they are bisected and trisected to signify the map of England with each daughter being handed given a centerpiece. An amped-up and exuberant Morton is jovial and laser focused in getting about transacting this business, showing no trace of the dottering or madness to come. His challenge "which of you shall we say doth love us most" brings Swallow's Goneril to giggling disbelief. Seriously, dad? You're asking me what?

Gallo proves especially strong, delivering a forceful and more principled Cordelia than we are often accustomed to seeing. In their other incarnation as the Fool, the actor is equally up to the task of trading barbs and insights with Morton. The scene within the hovel on the heath with Lear, the Fool and Edgar (Zachary Solomon) playing mad Poor Tom has a claustrophobic air, with characters frequently crawling around on their knees amidst the wreckage.

As the evening draws on, Morton brings out a performance suffused with intelligence and insight that feels like it's competing with the blare and techno gadgetry of the physical production. His is a quieter, more contemplative king whose realization of his missteps seem to afflict more than the betrayals themselves. Even at his maddest, this Lear never seems so far gone. But in a world in breakdown mode where technology is so rampant, it makes sense that a lonely Lear would be seeking a viable human connection. He finds one, all too briefly and at the height of his madness in Dover in his reunion with Gloucester (Harelik is quietly excellent).

In this production far more tech than heart, we are right there with him on that futile search.

KING LEAR plays through June 5 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, click here.

Photo of Rafael Jordan and Mark Harelik by Jason Williams.

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