Regional Reviews: St. Louis
A few years back, I watched one of Shakespeare's Henry plays in surprised admiration when silver-haired actor Richard Lewis came on, a good 30 minutes into the action, to first assume his kingly throne in silent solitude. In what amounted to "the wave" as re-interpreted by thoughtful theatergoers, the entire audience seemed to shift its collective weight in their seats (sequentially, stage-left to stage-right) with what appeared to be an unanimous air of relief. Things had finally snapped into sharp focus for them as the king had well and truly arrived.
Mr. Lewis returns now as another Shakespearean king, of the barbaric variety, under the smart, understated direction of Deanna Jent. And I am grateful to hand over the burden of explaining the greatness of this tale of foolish old men and their power-hungry off-spring to someone else.
Rory Lipede glows as a decent, if only mildly pained Cordelia. Although a very stylish comedienne, her most memorable feat here is the way she leaps into the arms of lost friends, in giddy, devoted reunion. But without any great show of anguish, the usually formidable Ms. Lipede and director Jent have inadvertently given this Lear a "light Cordelia" in more ways than one.
You may remember the old stage joke, Q: "What's the best advice you can give to an older actor playing Lear?" A: "Get a light Cordelia," (to carry on near the end). With her back to the audience for one long stretch, and a manner that is often merely reassuring, Ms. Lipede becomes too weightless for tragedy.
The vast mysterious dark matter in this ancient universe belongs to Anne Smith, as Goneril. She has a restrained, clever playfulness, with an air of sinister empowerment. Ms. Smith is a human beehive, always ready to swarm into action.
Julie Venegoni is the other clever sister, eagerly following in Goneril's footsteps and rightly portraying Regan as a jealous middle child.
Steve Callahan is Gloucester, thoughtful and wise. But the lasting impression of his time on stage here will be of how Daniel Lanier (Cornwall) gouges his eyes out: two ragged gelatinous orbs, to be casually flicked across the stage before tea and biscuits in the lobby. It's perfectly ghastly. Or "perfect" and "ghastly," to be more precise.
Mr. Lanier and Travis Estes (as the wicked Edmund) provide the first genuinely excellent moment of conspiracy, but there are several times where the cast blossoms into brilliance. Mr. Lewis is especially comical in his exile, in his first mad entrance, pursuing a mouse. Later, he and his ruined followers are outstanding as he conducts a trial in absentia of his grasping daughters.
Even more importantly, the final acts are especially gratifying as Edgar (the actress Dominique Gallo, who completely took me in) starts to display his kingly attributes out in the wild. Ms. Gallo travels a very interesting path here. Thinking her to be the most oily and effeminate of men, I cringed every time she opened her mouth in the first 2/3rds of the play. She seemed to embody The Lord Of The Rings' Smeagle as reenacted by your mother's Avon Lady. But then, as this Edgar's playfulness, gentleness and wisdom began to shine forth alongside the sightless Mr. Callahan, I was gradually won over to his/her side. The slender, shaved-headed Ms. Gallo shows such attributes of grace and understanding in her rags and tatters that Edgar's final royal ascension gains a true sense of uplift.
Craig Hinders is noble and wounded as the Regan's jealous husband, and David Lane makes a very good case for himself (and for Cordelia) as the king of France. As Kent, Jenn Bock is one of several reliable stalwarts in the Jent ensemble, which includes Kareem Deanes and Adam Flores.
Mr. Estes choreographs the combat, but those scenes are performed with such daintiness by the actors, with their fretful roars and grunts, that they resemble faint copies of samurai more than pre-historic Britons (theater buffs may wince at this unintentional reminder of John Gielgud's reviled production of a Japanese-designed Lear in 1955).
Still, the first section of Professor Jent's play, up to (and including) that horrid eye-gouging, is drenched in wickedness and venality under Mr. Lewis' dark hollow glare. And the second part, after intermission, is full of the same man's terrific comedy, accented with Ms. Gallo's surprising (in more ways than one), ennobling grace.
The only thing lacking in the budget here seems to be money for four to six more sound speakers to dampen the noise of the storm fans and of those modern fake torches, whose artificial flames are kept billowing by noisy little blowers.
Otherwise, with a fine set by Daniel Lanier, and equally fine costumes by Teresa Doggett, and a very good storm, King Lear continues through April 9, 2006, at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd. in Clayton, MO. (This venue can be reached from the Big Bend Blvd. entrance.)
For more information call (314) 889-1425.