Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Richard's review of Feast
That early, emblematic scene where Lear seeks to divide up his (African) nation into thirds for his daughters has the faint psychological ring of "RuPaul's Drag Race" to it, where Goneril (Rayme Cornell, here both contemptuous and proud), Regan (a plain-spoken but deceived Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (infinitely peaceful Nicole King) must "lip-synch for their lives." Or, in this case, put on a show of love and praise for a vain old man. It's the only time director Carl Cofield seems to allow pop culture to curdle his production, for storytelling purposes. I'm not counting the "drag dressing room" type of moments, where the sisters still lash out at one another, or the delightfully modern ad-lib comedy of Alan Gilmore as a great Fool, because the rest of the story unfolds naturally and spontaneously, and with great clarity. And since King Lear predates RuPaul by about 400 years, who is imitating whom?
Even when all is lost, like bandleader Cab Calloway, Mr. De Shields exhorts the crowd to rousing heights, demanding one more moment of royal dignity. It's usually funny. And even when it's not, in the half-dozen times he's led away, mumbling in solitary disgrace, we gain an entirely different sense of entertainment: feeling the whole story might just be playing out in his cobwebbed memory, in the hall of some shabby rest home. In recent memory, there is no greater sense of despair than Mr. De Shields, deflated.
For the sake of comparison, Hamlet seems like a young man's nightmare of misplaced trust and of Freudian horror. Lear is the perfect bookend for that, coming at the end of another man's life, when all his social capital is squandered, and a handful of much younger men and women are left to scramble for power and survival in the ruins of the kingdom. A tiny band of loyal friends sustains the foolish king. Brian Anthony Wilson is excellent as Gloucester, Mr. Gilmore gets a lot of laughs as the Fool, and J. Samuel Davis is gracious and warm (and funny) as Kent. Shakespeare's revolving door of dukes in and out of favor spins briskly once more, and dignity hangs askew.
Edmund and Edgar, the two sons of Gloucester, are beautifully played by Leland Fowler and Daniel José Molina, building to the requisite knife fight in act five. It's quick, as choreographed by Rick Sordelet, but bristles with as many as six swords and knives. That's set up by Edmund's cringe-inducing duplicityand all the great, contrary love and wit shown by Edgar. It's a long show, but it never loses its drive. Everything that's lost by Lear (the love and honor and trust) forges itself into his own invisible cage. And no manyoung or oldwould ever wish to be locked up inside of that.
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's King Lear runs through June 27, 2021, at Shakespeare Glen, between the St. Louis Art Museum and the Children's Zoo. Free to the public, but reservations are required. And bring a sweater or coat; the breeze off the vast reflecting pool nearby grows surprisingly chilly after dark, even in summer. For more information visit www.stlshakes.org
Cast (in alphabetical order):
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association