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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Shakespeare's King Lear
With a Japanese Flair

Also see Richard's reviews of Shirley Valentine, Restoration Comedy and Andrea Marcovicci

Marin Shakespeare Company has opened their 2006 season with the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, featuring Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Barry Kraft as the unfortunate king. Director Robert S. Currier is presenting this three-hour play with a Japanese flair. It reminds me of a production that starred Nigel Hawthorn at the Barbican Center years ago. However, this production seems to be a combination of Japanese and modern style since it is not a true Noh style of acting.

King Lear is rarely performed as it requires top flight Shakespearean actors, even in the small roles. I give kudos to the Marin Shakespeare Company for bravely choosing this production for their summer Shakespeare festival.

The play is about insanity and sanity, treachery and righteousness, betrayal and honesty. It is one of the most powerful plays the Bard wrote. The strength of this production lies in its cast, with some excellent performances. Some of the actors abandon the iambic pentameter and speak their lines in semi-modern speech.

Barry Kraft gives a memorable performance through an approach quite different from Lears I have seen in the past, both in this country and in England. This actor, who has performed the tragic king in seven productions both at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the American Conservatory Theatre, gives a businesslike approach to the role. At the beginning of the play, when Lear is dividing his kingdom among his three daughters - eldest Goneril (Mary Knott), second eldest Regan (Cat Thompson), and youngest, Cordelia - it seems more like a business meeting of a large corporation. This important and basic scene is a little rushed and has little dramatic impact. The scenes that follow, when the daughters are refused admittance to their newly acquired kingdoms, is also hurried, and some of the speeches between daughters and king are lost since the daughters are not projecting adequately to the audience. Kraft's portrayal of a man descending into madness is brilliant in the second act. The scene between him and his exiled daughter Cordelia near the end of the play is poignant.

George Maquire gives a vibrant performance as the banished Earl of Kent. He possesses the necessary strength and uses Shakespeare's iambic pentameter to great effect. Jack Powell as the Duke of Gloucester who faultlessly speaks the Bard's words is excellent in the role. He is more sympathetic than usual when the Duke's eyes are torn from their sockets and he is made to wander the land.

Matthew Henderson underplays the difficult part of the fool. He is dressed in a Japanese clown outfit, and sometimes his gamboling speech is much too fast. He plays it more as a vaudevillian stand-up comedian, even to the point of doing a Chaplinesque walk at the end of one of the speeches.

Darren Bridgett as Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate son, seems a little too casual in the role. He is not slimy enough to plot the downfall of Edgar, the legitimate son of the Duke. Michael Wiles gave an effective performance as Edgar and Mad Tom. Elias Escobedo as the King of France in his one scene has the Shakespearean speech down pat. Dennis O'Brien as Albany and John Basiulis as Cornwall seem to say their words in a modern tongue. They are effective in their portrayal of the husbands of the two deceitful daughters. Michael Abts, Ron Severdia and Matthew Purdon have small roles as servants.

Mary Knoll as Goneril presents the character as a coldhearted individual who has no saving grace. She plays the role almost like Lady Macbeth. However, her vocal timbre is accomplished with a theatrical flare. Cat Thompson as Regan gives a nice performance as a person who conceals a cold and absent heart. LeAnne Rumbel gives a moving performance as Cordelia in her scene with the mad king toward the end of the three-hour tragedy.

Bruce Lackovic has devised a Japanese set with sliding rice paper and bamboo doors at the rear of the stage. On top of the stage are two huge, round rice paper circles that represent Japanese drums. Percussionists Erin Callahan and Sarah Gita Zolan play the kettle drums behind these two large circular pieces. Sound designer Billie Cox has developed the sound of a powerful wind and rain storm which gives the production a dramatic impact. Lighting director Ellen Brooks adds a theatrical effect to the storm with flashes of lightning.

Costume Designer Abra Berman dresses Lear like a Mikado while the rest of the male cast are in Japanese armor or kimonos. The ladies are costumed in beautiful colored gowns. The fight scene as devised by Richard Lane is very realistic. Director Richard S. Currier seems to hurry the scenes in the first act, especially after Lear has divided his kingdom to his daughters. The second act is more cohesive and very well done.

King Lear is part of the Marin Shakespeare Festival and this tragedy runs with the wacky Alice in Wonderland through August 20th. The third and final production, The Comedy of Errors, opens on September 1 and runs through September 24th. The festival is being held at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Grand Ave, Dominican University of California. San Rafael, CA. For tickets, call 415-499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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