Monday, March 31, 2008

King Lear at Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival

Disclaimer...I am not an unbiased reviewer (of course, is there such a thing as an unbiased reviewer of theater?). One of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival actors attends our church...the company is housed in a theater a block away from our building....I am generally forgiving of errors in production when a company gives a real honest effort.

And thus I come to my review of Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival's King Lear. Local theater critic Jackie Demaline blasted the production. While she has a few salient points, I think she missed out on some of the real beauty of the show.

For instance...often we hear that Lear is unjustly betrayed by his elder daughters. The action is driven by Lear's decision to retire from kingship, divide his kingdom among his three daughters, and retain the title and privilege of kingship, while divesting himself of the responsibility. When his faithful youngest daughter refuses to play along with a ritual ceremony of flattery, Lear flies into a rage and disinheirits her, dividing everything between his older, and more devious, daughters. These daughters betray him, stripping him of all his remaining authority, banishing Lear to wander in the wilds in the midst of a horrid storm.

This conflict is usually played up as Lear being a good king who makes a mistake. This production however, brings out the vagaries of Lear's temper, his debauchery, and a little of his pettiness in playing favorites among his daughters. Brian Cromer's Lear is just as skilled of a manipulator as his older daughters. We have no doubt that he was an able and powerful king who by force of will held together a kingdom, but we also see his fragility. So at the height of the storm, when Lear shouts out "I am a man more sinned against than sinning!", we are aware of his lack of insight. The production brings out this ambiguity aptly.

Also the interesting choices in Lear's death. He has just brought the dead body of his youngest daughter onstage, and he wails her loss, a loss that kills him by breaking his frail heart. His final lines are "Pray you undo this button. Thank you sir. Do you see this? Look on her! Look her lips, Look there, look there..." and he dies. The typical interpretation is that an attending courtier loosens a button on the dying Lear's coat, and Lear fancies he sees his daughter's lips moving before he dies.

In this production, Lear addresses these lines not to the actors around him, but to something he sees beyond. On "Pray you undo this button." the attending duke of Kent reaches over to unfasten the coat...Lear pushes his arm away, and far gazing says "Thank you sir." implying a transcendent undoing not of a physical coat, but a loosening of the bonds of the spirit to the mortal coil. Then, his gaze fixed afar, as though on some approaching angel "Look on her! Look her lips...." In a simple choice, the play is transformed from a solopsistic view of man crushed beneath the terrors of life to a redemptive view of man transformed by suffering and liberated from his pain to transcendence. This is tremendous! This is daring in a world of nihilistic pessimism.

There is similar ambiguity with the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany... in both we see the capacity of command that would make them a good king both we see the temptations to powerlust...Cornwall falls, Albany perseveres.

The Duke of Gloucester shows the most interesting progression. His early scenes show him to be a somewhat hesitant man...a man who appears to have inheirited his position rather than earned it by victory in battle. He's uncertain and easily led along by his devious son Edmund. Yet we see his steel develop as he gets involved in a conspiracy to support the king....and we see his grim resolve in the face of torture at the hands of Cornwall (gouging Gloucester's eyes out onstage). Blindness gives Gloucester a depth ... a sensitivity to the wrongs that he's done, a despair in the face of the lives wrecked about him, a joy at reunion with the now mad Lear. This production brings out the complexity of Gloucester's hard-won insight.

Kent, meanwhile, carries a nobility about him. From the beginning, I felt that this was a battle hardened man accustomed to speaking frankly with his king and giving good advice. His resignation to keep serving the king, even in the face of banishment leads him to an odd freedom in the face of chaos. He is playful and jesting...even more so than the fool. The fool, meanwhile is all knowing, all seeing. And resigned to the doom he knows is inevitable. They are a fine pairing, playing off each other with subtlety and wit.

Did the production have all means (for every production does). I didn't feel convinced by the fight scenes .... they were well coreographed, but complicated enough to be physically dangerous for the actors (and thus really hard to fully commit to -- I can empathize with not wanting to accidentally stab a company member onstage). Yet the overall impression at the end of the show was indeed one of catharsis....the emotional purging that Aristotle says is the chief end of tragedy.

So I say well played, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival...well played.