Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 4, 2019
King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by Sam Gold. Original music by Philip Glass. Scenic design by Miriam Buether. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Jane Cox. Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair and makeup design by Campbell Young Associates. Cast: Glenda Jackson, Elizabeth Marvel, Aisling OSullivan, Ruth Wilson, Dion Johnstone, Russell Harvard, John Douglas Thompson, Jayne Houdyshell, Sean Carvajal, Pedro Pascal, Ian Lassiter, Justin Cunningham, Matthew Maher, Michael Arden, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Che Ayende, Therese Barbato, Daniel Marmion, John McGinty.
Mr. Gold has a penchant for grabbing hold of a classic play (Look Back in Anger, Picnic, The Glass Menagerie), melting it down to its essence, and reassembling it into something new. The results are usually bold, if not always completely rewarding for the audience. His most recent entanglement with Shakespeare prior to this one, a 2017 production of Hamlet at the Public Theater, bordered on the bizarre. It seemed to be random and purposeless, designed to shock rather than elucidate, including scenes of Polonius sitting on the toilet and, later, Ophelia vomiting into it. Happily, in the case of King Lear, there is considerably more method in his madness.
Intriguingly, Ms. Jackson's Lear does not dominate the production the way other actors typically have done with the role. And, no, it's not because she is a woman or because she is the age of her octogenarian character. She is decidedly not an elderly and infirm "Queen Lear." Her Lear is every inch a king, and Ms. Jackson thoroughly and convincingly conveys all of the narcissism, the cruel arrogance, the undiscerning naiveté, and the physical and mental dissolution of the self-deposed monarch. But this is a king from whom the air has started to discharge even before we first meet him. And by the time we reach the famously great and terrible storm scene, one that is usually milked for every ounce of bellowing fury the actor in the title role can muster, the thunder and wind and rain in Scott Lehrer's sound design outroar the tired bark of the wandering and lost soul our Lear has become.
It's a bold approach that fits with the production's overall theme by presenting us with a near toothless old lion in decline. Lear should be the maypole around which everyone else dances, but what emerges is a tale of the passing of the baton to the next generation.
As it turns out, this is a risky business when the next generation is ill prepared to use their inherited power to ensure the continuance of the kingdom. Much of the limelight falls on Lear's daughters, especially on the two eldest, Goneril and Regan. Elizabeth Marvel is mesmerizing as Goneril, showing with her every facial expression and action that she is her father's daughter, a self-serving creature of greed and lust. Coming across as a character from an extravagant Jacobean drama, Ms. Marvel dominates every scene she is in, especially when she latches onto the scheming Edmund (Pedro Pascal) and the two go at it like a couple of bonobos.
King Lear is always a challenging play to put on because it is filled with so many characters who come and go and, in some cases, take on disguises with new names. The story of Lear and his daughters has its parallel in that of his loyal courtier, the Earl of Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell). Gloucester has two sons, one of whom is the bastard Edmund, whose illegitimacy his father constantly and publicly reminds him of. The other is the kind and honest Edgar (Sean Carvajal), the legitimate son and heir, with all the privileges that entails. Edmund, who is understandably resentful, manages rather easily to convince Gloucester that Edgar has betrayed him, just as Lear has convinced himself that Goneril and Regan will surely continue to honor and obey him after he has given up the throne. Both of the older men are, of course, taken for fools, especially by Lear's actual Fool (Ruth Wilson again, having a rollicking good time in the role).
There is a lot of clever and entertaining playfulness whenever the Fool shows up, and there is a lot of turmoil every time Goneril, Regan, and Edmund are on stage. The blinding of Gloucester is a particularly harrowing example of the latter; just watch the look of glee on Aisling O'Sullivan's face during this scene. But some of best moments of the play come at quieter times, where no one is being antic or outlandish, when everything softens to a hush, and Shakespeare's words soar and the performances drop all artifice.
When Lear asks "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" When the wandering and unseeing Gloucester says in the presence of Edgar who has been assisting his blind father while in his guise as the beggar Tom, "Might I but live to see thee in my touch, I'd say I had eyes again." Or when Lear is briefly reunited with his beloved Cordelia. These are the truly wow moments of the play. For all the distracting noise that precedes them, these are the times when Ms. Jackson and Ms. Houdyshell show us their very best as actors.
Forget about the difficulty of keeping straight the many characters who come and go, the biggest issue facing any production of King Lear is how to balance the scenes of wantonness and cruelty involving Goneril, Regan, and Edmund; the high jinks of the Fool; and the tender tale of the thrust-out old men, Lear and Gloucester. It is quite a challenge to keep everything from unraveling and breaking off into segmented moments. Scenic designer Miriam Buether and costume design Ann Roth do a very good job of taking us from lavish court scenes at the beginning to the dystopian scene of disorder and raggedness at the end. But with so much going on, with so many tangential meanderings including an unfortunate overemphasis on Philip Glass's score, we lose the fact that there is a reason the play is called King Lear. Without Lear at the center, the production fails to cohere into a well-defined whole and becomes a long three-and-a-half hour trek without a fulfilling payoff.