BWW Review: KING LEAR at UCSB: Performing Arts Theater
Critic A.C. Bradley claimed that of all of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear was too sublime for the stage. For Bradley, King Lear's depiction of madness, stormy landscapes, filial deception, and treachery went to extremities best conjured by a reader who can imaginatively fill in the breadth of Shakespeare's vast tragic landscape. The turn-of-the-century stage practice that Bradley would have experienced, however, aspired to visual verisimilitude. In trying to depict everything for the audience's eyes, these theaters could only betray the expansive world of Lear.
The Naked Shakes' production of King Lear at UCSB presented its action closer to the manner of Shakespeare's own theatre, stripped of scenic layering, an aesthetic that allows the actors to focus on their core art, that of endowment. This approach suits the play's thematic valuation of unadorned truth over the "glib and oily" masks of dissembling flattery. The cast of King Lear (I saw Cast One's performance; the show has two casts.) transformed the bare theater space into the halls of Lear's court, the stormy wilds of the heath, and the various spaces between them, purely through the manner of their engagement with the other players and the stage space.
Music composed and performed by Andrew Truong underscored the tragedy's emotional arc while the ensemble created other sound effects as in, for example, the thunder and rain in the storm. The actors in the storm scene drummed on the metal sides of the seating, transferring the energy of their speeches to the tips of their fingers in a stirring crescendo to match the action.
In Gloucester's blinding scene, no syrupy stage blood leaked from the betrayed man's eyes, but I winced at the physical brutality of the act because of the actors' commitment to its reality. For this kind of "naked" staging of a Shakespearean drama to hold an audience, even for an abbreviated 90 minutes, the players must also have full command of the language and an internal sense of the reality that they are tasked with portraying. And so, it was. Each actor, down to the heralds and servants, projected the meaning of Shakespeare's text with physicalized motivations. Actor Kody Patrick handled the difficult character transformations of Edgar from favorite son to the madman, "Poor Tom" by shifting his center of gravity from an upright man to an earth-hugging creature. Brian Harwell as Lear played the king's despair over the death of Cordelia with heart-wrenching piteousness.
The production of Lear was done in repertory with A View from the Bridge and it was delightful to have seen some of the same actors in Miller's realistic tragedy jump adroitly into Shakespeare. Tadja Enos, in particular, played the ingenuous Catherine in A View and seemed to slip effortlessly into the role of the villainous Goneril in Lear. I believe the skeptical A. C. Bradley would have been pleased.