The crown, as conceived of in Shakespeare,” Orson Welles said, “bears a very special kind of magic ... [Shakespeare] spent years getting himself a coat of arms. He wrote mostly about kings. We can’t have a great Shakespearean theatre in America anymore, because it’s impossible for today’s American actors to comprehend what Shakespeare meant by ‘king.’ They think a king is just a gentleman who finds himself wearing a crown and sitting on a throne.”
As far as this goes—and Welles touches on one of the crucial ideas, one in crisis, of Shakespeare’s time—it reflects on how the CalShakes production of King Lear, onstage now in Orinda, has made a virtue out of that incomprehension by adapting the tale (which The Bard himself pieced together from legendary sources) to the America of the 1920s, flush with success (and lucre) from the “adventure” of the First World War—with Lear as a Captain of Industry (or Robber Baron) surrounded by military men and advisors in silk hats and cutaways, on a set of girdered colonnades and oil drums, haunted by the down-and-out. There’s a whiff of the Teapot Dome Scandal hovering in the background, and Lear (in a finely nuanced performance by Jeffrey DeMunn, oft-seen in character on the big screen, TV and the New York stage) expresses himself with the impatience, even impetuosity, of the self-made man, rather than with the regal gesture of those to the manner born.
There’s great clarity to this production, as directed by Lisa Peterson (with the dramaturgical assistance of Shakespearean scholar Philippa Kelly), a clarity of line running through the complex actions, of gesture in the interaction of characters, and of speech, so crucial, in a performing arts milieu that is often content with “Festivalese” rushes of uninflected verse and hackneyed or tossed off expressions and “body language.”
There’s been some criticism that an otherwise admirable show has sacrificed the true poetry and drama of the play. What is true is that the CalShakes production isn’t operatic and concentrates on meaning, on the coherence of the wild pitch and yaw of the poetry and the range of characters and situations comprising one vast (and easily overwrought) drama, which it manages to scan briskly, with driving rhythms, never leaving a moment free of absorbing interest. Nearly three hours pass without the weariness of the wait for great moments. And when those great moments come, they’re integrated into the whole, not played up like a wind-lashed, illuminated banner, flapping in the dark and stormy night—but in a very human space that can hold in tableau these diverse and difficult personalities in a world breaking up on the rocks of personal extravagance.
It’s a little unfair to single out a few in the uniformly hard-working cast of more than 20, but besides DeMunn’s excellent Lear, mention should go to the hot and cool team of daughters who put Lear out on the heath, Delia MacDougall and Julie Eccles; to James Carpenter’s upright—and terribly wrong—Gloucester; Erik Lochtefield as Gloucester’s foppish son feigning mad indigence (one of Lochtefield’s best performances yet); and Anthony Fusco as a Fool half second banana, half racetrack tout.
The rest of those in name roles—Sarah Nealis, Andy Murray, Andrew Hurteau, L. Peter Callendar—give much to the delineation of their characters, and add to the impressive ensemble’s unity, as Liam Vincent, as Oswald, the least of the named roles, does by showing the smarmy snobbishness that masks cowardice.
Only Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, played (and played very well) by Ravi Kapoor as Al Pacino-doing-Scarface, doesn’t strike the right note. One of Shakespeare’s “incomprehensibly” evil villains, who addresses the audience a fair bit, Edmund in this interpretation falls down (as the title role in the CalShakes’ Richard III did, earlier this summer) seemingly to a cultural phenomenon. After several generations spent trying to make such caricaturish roles “believable,” once directors and actors caught on that Shakespeare was playing with types (right out of the allegorical medieval theater which preceded him by only a generation or two), they took up the concept. But they ran with it a little too far, playing everything over the top, too cartoonish, losing, amid the sound and fury, The Bard’s Manneristic purpose for placing an allegorical type next to—or within the same role as—a flesh and blood character.
Alexander V. Nichols’ lights, Paul James Prendergast’s sound and original music and Meg Neville’s costumes all add to the overall effect—as Rachel Hauck’s remarkable set especially does. This is one of the rare productions of Lear which catches the whole sweep of this prodigious drama.