Thursday, January 31, 2013
Theater review: DTC’s King Lear is flawed, confusing, and messy
But, disagreement with the director doesn't preclude the production from shining as a fine representation of Shakespeare's work.
DALLAS I’m going to give away the moral of King Lear before I even talk about it. It’s to live in the present moment, aware of all that is being said to and around you. And parents – pay close attention to what your children say. The truth usually lies just below the surface.
When William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in approximately 1605-06, great changes were being made, and don’t tell me that history does not repeat itself. With a rapid increase in the population and the rise and fall of prices and wages, the rich and poor alike were affected. Climate changes, years of bad harvests and epidemics of influenza and worse had a huge impact on people’s lives. In the political field, James VI of Scotland had recently taken the throne after Elizabeth I’s rule of seventy years to become James I of England. And in this new era, their “media” being stories, books, pamphlets and now newspapers, people were learning much more about what was happening in and to their country. Strong opinions were expressed concerning their rulers – kings, queens and lords – leading to an attempt to blow up the House of Lords during the opening of Parliament in late 1605. It’s no wonder Shakespeare used the tale of a falling monarch to make not so subtle comments about the goings on around him during that time.
The story of a lifelong king who wishes to rid himself of his position’s responsibilities yet believes he still deserves the benefits and finery to which he has been accustomed also smacks of a historical repeat. Demanding his three daughters profess their love for him in order to receive a part of his wealth shows the depth of either Lear’s denial or separation from reality – the truth. His eventual madness upon “awakening” to that truth is one more way Shakespeare showed his audiences their own degree of separation from those who ruled their very existence.
Dallas Theater Center’s AD and Director of King Lear, Kevin Moriarty, discussed his take on the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. He believes that the play functions on three different levels or dimensions at the same time – political, personal and psychological. Lear’s giving away of his power, his family’s betrayal of him, and his ultimate disillusionment merge during the climatic storm. Moriarty stated that to have all three dimensions structurally line up is “brilliant, moving and interesting” and that it’s “the experience we’re trying to convey with this production”. Yes, the three dimensions are easily defined by the writing, but the levels needed to believably reach Lear’s untimely destruction were nowhere to be found in this production. Not clearly building on the journey of King Lear, step by painful step, Moriarty allowed the visual designs, and not the acting, steadily advance the play to its inevitable tragic end.
I’m going to start at the top, with the title role. The performance by Brian McEleney set the emotional level high, early on, so that there was little room to grow, or disintegrate. Entering with bellowing voice, never lowering it, and then adding the shrill cries of one who is elderly and overwhelmed, quickly became hard to tolerate – maybe that was the point, and if so, it was effective. For an audience though, it was difficult, and for McEleney, it left him no place to go, emotionally or vocally – no rise to Lear’s breaking point of insanity. Lear himself said “I stumbled when I saw.” His physicality enhanced the notion of an old man’s imbalance and hesitancy in his steps, but his performance suffered from a one note level of anger and dementia, leaving the play’s most heart-wrenching moments of madness and death rather shallow and pointless.
Of the sixteen actors in this production of King Lear, six are debuting on DTC’s stage, being veteran actors with Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. It was delightful to see new faces and to watch what their experiences brought to the production. I also enjoyed observing how the two companies’ actors played off each other, working with people they knew less about, acting-wise. Starting with Lear’s children, Christie Vela, as eldest daughter Goneril, chewed some curtains and easily projected the character’s long, pent up loathing of her distant father. Vela took presence with her body language and dagger stares, making her one of the more vehemently hated Gonerils I had seen.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is second daughter Regan, played by Angela Brazil. Submissive to Goneril’s heavy-hand, she dutifully goes along with her plan of revenge on their father, and Brazil’s performance left me wondering if Regan had it in her to do the job. A bit underplayed, Brazil eventually rose to the horrific task Regan had planned, giving enough evilness to make her rapid decent all the more appropriate. The youngest daughter, and the love of Lear’s life, Cordelia was played by Abbey Siegworth with very low-key, minimal emotion, even after Cordelia’s banishment by her father. Having much less time onstage than others, Cordelia’s personality and mindset must be quickly established for the audience to understand her actions. Here, Siegworth’s role was so undeveloped that her rise to battle against Lear’s foes and her untimely death were too late and emotionally unsatisfying.
The roles of Goneril and Regan’s husbands can be underutilized and minor. Written as the weaker half of the couples, the Duke of Albany and Goneril’s husband, played by Joe Wilson, Jr., started out exactly that, a milquetoast of a man. Happily, Wilson’s acting rose to the occasion Shakespeare intended and portrayed a man mightily wronged and seeking his own revenge. Often playing a more amicable character, Chamblee Ferguson deftly showed his acting range as the Duke of Cornwall, Regan’s husband. Tall and lanky, Ferguson’s character reminded me of a serpent, quietly letting the women do all the talking and all the work until his moment to spring into action for attention and power. A rather slimy role, Ferguson never overemphasized the duke’s evilness but let it come through as naturally as a snake in water.
In a clever move, Moriarty cast Phyllis Kay to play the Earl of Gloucester, one of Lear’s friends and allies.
A woman’s interpretation on how to handle her sons was refreshing and enlightening, as only a mother would have that type of empathy or disappointment in her sons’ actions. I did, however, wish for more power to emerge in Kay’s character. As unintentional mother of sorts to Lear’s childlike behavior, and misguided in her disdain of Edgar’s supposed actions, I kept waiting for her motherly “animal instinct” to come into play, that burst of adrenaline that comes when a woman is willing to defend her children to the death. Even Gloucester’s blinding held little horror and Kay’s characterization was reduced to minor fanfare instead of being the pivotal role it was intended.
Lear’s other friend and ally is the Earl of Kent, played boldly by Hassan El-Amin. His was an interpretation to fit his role, a man who bowed to no one but the king. El-Amin’s physical and mental swagger made Kent someone to both admire and fear. Always with a smile on his face, even in battle, you just knew Kent was not a person to cross or betray. El-Amin made this role, which often is underplayed, into an unexpected hero.
A second serpent in the play, but with a much deadlier bite, is Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester. Lee Trull played this most villainous character with full force – you could almost hear the booing from the audience. Forced into “baseness” by his birth, Edmund has a gigantic chip on his shoulder and uses any and all means possible to seek vengeance. Trull’s character’s intent was clearly defined and his acting was powerful enough to make him one of the only characters on the stage to have a meaningful progression to his demise. Quite the opposite in character, brother Edgar, as portrayed by Steven Michael Walters, is the gentler of the brothers and attentive to his mother. In this production, a bit too gentle and underplayed. I never saw or felt the rivalry for their mother’s affection, a major part of the characters’ nature. Walters’ Edgar, even fleeing for his life at the hands of the Earl or his brother, showed little fear or much emotion. In disguise as beggar Tom in order to watch over his outcast parent, the anguish in watching her plight was so minimized that her own pain was emotionally reduced as well. Their scenes together held no power, no heartbreak. As Edgar took up arms against his mother’s enemies, the anticipated change in character simply wasn’t there, even with all the physicality of the fights and battles. Walter’s role never rose to the man Shakespeare wrote him to be, the vanquisher of evil and hero of the play.
Goneril’s servant Oswald is usually portrayed as a sniveling coward who does her dirty work, and is sometimes played with a subtle sexual tension between them. While he did have some cowardly moments, Fred Sullivan, Jr. portrayed Oswald with gentlemanly aplomb, much like Downtown Abbey’s lovable Mr. Carson. A bit jarring visually and amusing, it was interesting to watch the dapper man servant running around being the villain and Sullivan played his role to the hilt.
The most surprising and truly disappointing characterization was that of King Lear’s court jester and confidant, the Fool, as played by Stephen Berenson. This most important of all the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Fool is the town crier, the teller of truths and the keeper of secrets. Always to be at the king’s side, singing songs and whispering riddles of the changing temperament surrounding him, his is to walk the fine line between amusing Lear and being beheaded for his words. There were times when I couldn’t even find Fool on the stage, he was blocked so far behind the others. Berenson’s voice was soft, his lines lent no hilarity or sarcasm, and you didn’t sense that constant, underlying “humorous” tension between him and his master. The love he held for Lear, even following him through tumultuous wind and rain with no shelter or food, was minimally seen or felt. Fool became just another member of Lear’s dwindling entourage, a side note for a character that holds such major importance.
Visually, King Lear was a spectacle of immense dimension and light, as designed by Michael McGarty and Seth Reiser. Rough-hewn wooden walls and square columns, rising to the ceiling, easily balanced the stately double doors upstage center. Other doors led off to different locations as the play progressed from Lear’s castle to those of his two daughters and the home of Gloucester. The lighting complimented each and every change in mood as Lear began his descent.
The only true indication of opulence was a single chandelier above down stage center.
Powerful shafts of light blasted on and off, horizontally across and halfway up the back wall, cutting through the onstage tension like a knife through butter. Sitting in one of the side tiers, it was nice to have a lot of the action played nearby with the use of walkways and metal fencing on both sides of the orchestra seating. Many an actor’s subtle yet effective facial nuances and lines would have been lost if only viewed on the main stage.
Always the dramatically visual highlight of any King Lear is the thunderstorm scene with usual flashes of lightning and thunder claps. But the jaw-dropping sight and sound from onstage during this portion of DTC’s King Lear must be witnessed without any pre-explanation. The second “act” of the play held more surprise as the actors then crawled over and around flipped set pieces and decking - it was a tremendous engineering feat and easily worthy of award accolades. I did observe the long, gaping crack running across the plastered back wall, denoting the crumbling of Lear’s kingdom and world, an often used but still effective visual nonetheless. The only time lighting did not support the scene was with the downstage floor spots Edgar and a few others stepped into to speak to the audience. Both Moriarty’s blocking and the spots were confusing, ineffectual and stopped the build of the actors’ speeches entirely. In fact, there was much use of asides and speeches directed to the audience as if they were the king’s subjects.
Of all the designs though, I really got into the sound effects and original music by Broken Chord. Not a musician, I believe I noted metal pipes being hit, tubing blown into, metal drumming, and more organic, Aboriginal discordant music. The collaboration of light and sound, where each lighting change held a sound to go with it, made both effects that much more powerful.
Being set in modern times, costuming was no different than we would see on the street today, for the most part. William Lane dressed the women in daytime business or nice cocktail dresses during the dividing of the kingdom. I did question having Siegworth’s Cordelia move in those high stiletto heels; she looked uncomfortable and a bit afraid. Men donned fine suits, one or two double-breasted. Oswald was in pin-striped day coat, slacks and spats (I believe). The best was Fool, in plaid pants, plaid bow-tie, plaid coat and plaid hatband, none of them matching of course! He looked like a tourist just getting off the boat in Florida. As the women mainly kept their same appearances, the men got a bit more casual. Kent, now hiding and in disguise, went for the faded, thin jeans look with T-shirt, bandanna neckerchief and black rag head-wear. Edmund went biker, all in black from his leather jacket to his boots. Lear un-layered down to his skivvies or less, and both Edgar and Cordelia took on a guerrilla, militia look when it was time for battle. Cordelia and Lear later dressed all in white during their imprisonment. Only Edgar’s disguise as poor Tom was a miss, his “diaper” and head wrap looking much like men’s briefs, splotched with grey dye to look muddy.
There were a few one-on-one fight scenes during King Lear and a wonderfully stylized battle scene using wooden batons instead of swords. Guns were used, as it was indeed in modern times.
Choreography by Craig Handel for the fighting was adequate but I am getting really tired of punches, slaps and other fight effects being so blatantly artificial. No one wants anyone to get hurt, of course, but to slug towards someone’s face and have their fist be so far away completely takes the audience out of reality and into amateur theatrics. Fight choreography can look real, I know it, but I seldom see it.
Even with its many flaws and problems, I highly recommend Dallas Theater Center’s King Lear anyway. Disagreement with the direction doesn’t mean the production doesn’t still shine as a fine representation of Shakespeare’s work. Some exceptional performances and amazing visual and sound design do much to make this play, one of my all-time favorites, worth the experience.
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