“Nothing will come of nothing,” says Lear, the elderly king of England, when his favorite daughter refuses to dote on him the way her opportunistic, two-faced older sisters do. And so, upon the honorable but undemonstrative Cordelia’s disinheritance and exile, Lear’s great tragedy – triggered by his own blind vanity and arguably the greatest in Shakespeare’s canon – is set into motion.
Also set into motion by this declaration are creative, often audacious choices made by modern-day directors of “King Lear” who feel challenged to do something more with this remarkable play than what the Bard’s limited stage directions suggest.
The gender-blind casting of 82-year-old legend Glenda Jackson in the title role, cinematic underscoring, and an aggressive modernism define this year’s Broadway revival, which closes this weekend. Epic scale and a contemporary totalitarian setting that begged for reflection on modern-day politics was what London’s National Theatre served up in its recent production.
The current Beck Center for the Arts production, under Eric Schmeidl’s direction, has found a middle-ground for its innovations.
It, too, offers a modern-dress staging, but on a very small scale and on scenic designer Walter Boswell’s inert performance space filled with black platforms against flat, black columns and no shortage of shadows, courtesy of Trad Burns’ lighting design. All this blandness seems more budget-conscious than dramaturgical.
And it, too, offers gender-blind casting, but for the role of the Earl of Gloucester rather than Lear.
An absence of British accents, incongruous costuming by Kerry McCarty that emphasizes character over time or place, and actors remaining on the periphery of the stage throughout the production – listening in on moments of secretive scheming and overhearing the inner-voices of disclosing soliloquies – are other directorial choices that do not seem to match the universe “King Lear’s” characters inhabit or add much value to this play.
But Robert Hawkes, as Lear, is riveting. Though a bit vacant-eyed early on, Hawkes warms to the task of living in the skin of Shakespeare's angry monarch. This is particularly so when Lear struggles to restore clarity and dignity to the throne amidst the treachery of his oldest daughters (the talented Lisa Louise Langford, whose Regan is still a work in progress, and a perfectly severe Julia Kolibab as Goneril), and their spouses (the excellent Brian Pedaci as Albany and Rodney Freeman as Cornwall).
But it is when Lear descends deep into the abyss of madness and dementia that Hawkes’ performance – especially his vulnerability -- becomes fascinating. And in the final scene, when Cordelia (Danyel Renee Geddie, whose fine performance needs to adjust to the theater’s intimate performance space) is captured and killed, the soulful expression of his grief becomes almost too hard to witness.
Anne McEvoy brings an authenticity and poignancy to the role of the faithful Earl of Gloucester, who is also struggling with a treacherous child (a wonderfully creepy Daniel Telford as the illegitimate Edmund) and an innocent but absent one (an endearing James Rankin as the falsely incriminated Edgar). But by changing Shakespeare’s language from “Lord” to “Lady” when referencing Gloucester, director Schmeidl misses an opportunity to make a more powerful statement about gender had he left it alone the way Great Lakes Theater did when Laura Welsh Berg played Hamlet.
Still, kudos for giving an excellent female actor a titanic male role, particularly since there are seven times as many roles for men as there are for women in Shakespeare’s plays and those female roles have less than half the amount of lines as the male roles.
David Hansen is a model of no-nonsense resilience as Kent, an Earl disguised as a servant of the king, while Jeffery Allen is delightful as the perspective-bearing and irony-sharing Fool. As Oswald, Goneril’s steward, Shaun Patrick O’Neill handles his moments of comic relief and Joshua Brown’s fight choreography like a pro.
Despite its shortcomings, this staging proceeds with so much confidence and energy that its abbreviated running time of two-and-a-half hours flies by. And because nothing is ever overindulgent or overwrought, the impression of this production at curtain call is nothing but positive.