“Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” Nowhere else in Shakespeare are the elemental forces of nature so much in sync with primal human passions as in this tragedy of two dysfunctional families and a kingdom coming apart at the seams.
Lear and Gloucester, two hapless fathers, wander aimlessly in the clutches of a ferocious storm worthy of Katrina’s catastrophic implication: “Hurricanoes spout!”
King Lear is also one of the most difficult plays to stage successfully for qualitative reasons. Some things about the driving forces of the play—the dialectic between incident and overall perspective, cause and effect, and what’s said versus what’s performed—are such that almost imperceptible things can go awry and put the production off-course.
I’ve seen celebrated British companies present fine characterizations in interesting production plans spun out into exciting staging, and yet, somehow the show hopelessly bogs down into a string of more-or-less good and bad scenes with no real unity by the opening of the first storm scene. No wonder there are those who hold that Lear should be regarded as a reading play, for voice only, heard but not seen.
The Shotgun Players production, now up at the Ashby Stage, has two well thought-out assets: solid casting in the case of the two errant fathers (longtime associate Richard Louis James as Lear, and John Mercer as Gloucester) and an economical, fluid blocking, underpinned by brisk action and scene changes which let the plot unfold freely, the story fluently tell itself.
Co-directors Patrick Dooley and Joanie McBrien deserve credit for laying these foundations. The set by Alf Pollard—a stolid court setting of stone that can seem warm or cool, depending on the lighting (David Robertson), with an unobtrusive screen that reflects the crepuscular light of passing days or the flashes of lightning that punctuate the great, frightful exchanges during the storm to Chris Paulina’s thunderclaps—adds to the flexibility of the action spread out over various locales.
The tangle of complications, whereby a king disowns his favorite daughter and freely gives over the reins of his kingdom into the treacherous hands of a pair of jealous “evil sisters,” thereby finding himself literally out in the cold and out of his head while all parties gird up for apocalyptic battle, is presented with the simple, shocking clarity of a Grimms’ fairytale or a bad dream.
As in any good storytelling, the psychology is unstated but straightforward, the ambiguities of Shakespeare’s mannerism only opening up more perspectives as the action shifts and chaos expands.
Lear is easy prey to the sycophancy of his deceiving daughters because he is used to the flatteries of life at court, which revolves around his person. In his vanity—and here James’s portrayal is particularly good—the waspish king thinks it’s all due to his charm, his kingly aura and diplomatic mien, the sure sign of a tyrant who’s lost his grip, becoming subject to his toadies’ and his own extravagances.
In the case of Gloucester, tricked into accusing his loyal son Edgar (Dave Maier) by his scheming bastard Edmund (Benjamin Privett), the roots of his susceptibility are again transparently clear. He’s a courtier who considers himself so conventionally good, he cannot conceive of being tricked in his distraction, blustering (and Mercer’s a worthy blusterer) before his secret foes over the loss of what he held sacred, that which was lost unawares long before.
Disasters mount up, and the aggregate becomes ever more shocking in its barefaced depiction of snowballing degeneracy as seen by a crazed, self-deposed monarch, its whole far exceeding any of the grisly details of eyes plucked out, feral couplings, or disguises that overpower the character of those who put them on.
It also can fray nerves. Shakespeare’s always flirting with melodrama: if the overtones are to sound tragic, they must ring out clear; if strange, they cannot echo the tumult of the catastrophe or the storm.
It’s here that uneven casting and those almost-imperceptibles come into play to hobble what would proceed from clarity of the presentation. The cast of 15 works hard, and some with fair success, like Lear’s daughters (demure Zehra Berkman, Fontana Butterfield with deceptive grand manner, and especially simmering Trish Mulholland) or an acting-out female Fool (Katja Rivera).
But untrained, unorchestrated voices in particular become cloying or grating with one or another failure of mismatched diction, be it overly vernacular delivery or too much Shakes Festival-ese. The distress over what’s portrayed doesn’t attain escape velocity to reach the sublime orbit where parallel lines of perspective intersect, and the Bard’s elusive Truth flashes into view for an instant, as Melville once said, like a white deer fleeing, from tree to tree, through the woodlands.
Presented by the Shotgun Players at 8 p.m. Thursday—Sunday through June 11 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. 841-6500.