Shakespeare Theatre King Lear Rock Solid Through and Through
Director Bonnie J. Monte has populated her Lear with a cast of twenty, and provided a large, dark and forbidding, craggy landscape which spills over the front of the stage and into the laps of her audience. All is in the service of an intimate, life-sized Lear with which (and whom) mere mortals can fully relate. After all, is there a play in the Bard's canon that is unrelentingly bleaker than this fictional tale of an aging, retired ruler, and his satanically cruel, "ungrateful" daughters? Or, save Hamlet, one that is a more deeply personal family tragedy?
Let us first consider Goneril and Regan, those "ungrateful" daughters. How did they get that way? Were they born evil? What could possess them to so cruelly treat the father who has given over to each one full rule over half of his bountiful kingdom? Actually, it had been Lear's intent to give his youngest daughter Cordelia the most valuable share of his lands (Although the last, not least; what can you say to draw/ A third more opulent than your sisters?). Even her suitor, the King of France, knows that Lear favored Cordelia over them ("... she ... was your best object,/the argument of your praise, balm of your age,/ Most best, most dearest .../). Cordelia's reluctance to heap the verbal praise upon Lear, which he so foolishly sought, can most logically be interpreted as a reluctance to offend her sisters by so pandering in order to receive favoritism from him. Any number of related family issues such as these make Lear particularly relevant and modern to us today. And we are made to consider such issues when they are as clearly vouchsafed to us as they are by this large yet intimate production.
Daniel Davis amply displays the dictatorial rage with which Lear surely must have ruled his kingdom (he is keeping an entourage of 100 counselors, attendants and hangers-on in his retirement) when he turns on his beloved Cordelia, as well as the piteousness which too often afflicts those elderly who find themselves bereft of the power and status of their halcyon days. Davis performs in a carefully measured, naturalistic manner which suits this tattered and toothless lion in winter. It is not only the child who is blessed by having his own. (For six seasons, beginning in 1993, Davis became known to a large national audience portraying Niles the butler on the popular TV comedy series The Nanny.)
As the duplicities mount over the more than three hour length of this production, each twist and turn of plot and character is carefully calibrated to receive its full due. Kristie Dale Sanders (Goneril) and Victoria Mack (Regan) are clearly sisters in wicked cunning, yet Sanders' Goneril is calculatingly cold and dangerous, whereas Mack's Regan is impulsive as she makes Goneril, who has become her enemy, her unknowing mentor. Erin Partin is a sympathetic, appropriately hapless Cordelia. Matt Bradford Sullivan as Regan's husband Cornwall is a study in cruelty. Scott Whitehurst is stalwart as Goneril's honorable husband who stands up against the cruel machinators surrounding him.
Another torn family is also center stage. Edmond Genest brings dignity to the manipulated and brutally betrayed Gloucester. His illegitimate, scheming son Edmund is played by Marcus Dean Fuller with full-force villainy. Kevin Isola nicely segues from a disguise which includes feigned oddness to quiet determination as Gloucester's loyal son, Edgar. Ames Adamson is strong and subtle as the loyal Kent. Initially exiled by Lear for counseling him not to disinherit Cordelia, Kent endures all manner of suffering in order to serve his king.
The costumes of Clint Ramos are particularly rich and evocative, Steven Rosen's lighting creates striking stage pictures, and, as noted, Marion Williams' set creates a bleak, intimate landscape. Director Bonnie Monte has elicited uniformly excellent performances which seamlessly come together to create an engrossing and intimate King Lear.
Among the last lines of King Lear is advice which is very relevant today:
The weight of this sad time we must obey;
King Lear continues performances (Tuesday-Wednesday 7:30 p.m./ Thursday-Saturday 8 p.m./ Saturday-Sunday 2 p.m./ Sunday 7 p.m.) through July 27, 2008 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600, online: www.shakespeareNJ.org.
King Lear by William Shakespeare; directed by Bonnie J. Monte