Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The role of Lear is a monumental challenge for actors, often viewed as the capstone of a great career. For his production Haj has chosen two Twin Cities' actors with distinguished careers, Stephen Yoakam and Nathaniel Fuller, to alternate in the role. At the performance I attended, Mr. Yoakam played Lear, with Mr. Fuller present in the very small role of an old man who leads blind Gloucester on stage. They are surrounded by an exceptional cast who breathe life into every character. The entire production has an epic look, feel and sound, announcing itself in no uncertain terms as a most special theatrical occasion. And so it is.
The plot is mammoth in scope, as characters ascend great heights and fall to terrible depths. Lear, a great king, has been considering his legacy. His plan to forestall strife among his three adult daughters over dominion of his kingdom after his death is to divide it in thirds and give each a portion to rule while he still lives. As he is about to do just that, he asks each daughter to offer a testimony of her love for him. His two oldest daughters, Goneril (married to the Duke of Albany) and Regan (married to the Duke of Cornwall), profess extravagant love, placing their affection for their father above all else in life. However, Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia speaks the truth plainly. Being unable to embroider her words of devotion to advance her cause, she states "You have begot, and bred, and loved me. I return those duties bask as are right fit: obey you, love you, and most honor you." Lear's vanity is wounded by her unadorned expression of love. He impulsively denies her any share of his kingdom, and sees her betrothed to the King of France who takes her away. When the Earl of Kent, deeply loyal to Lear, advises his king against this rash act, warning that he will regret it, Lear's anger inflates, and he exiles Kent as well.
No sooner have these events occurred than Goneril and Regan, now each holding half the kingdom, confer over fears that their father's behavior proves he is losing his grip on sense and judgment with age. They agree to take all control away from him, leaving Lear diminished in his own kingdom. Thus begins a spiral of suspicion, abuse, deception and loss. Betrayed by the daughters who announced their love for him with such flourish, Lear realizes how deeply he has wronged Cordelia. The weight of this and the sudden erosion of his authority drive him to wander in madness. The apex of Lear's madness during a violent storm is a highlight of the play. In fact, it is one of the highlights in all of English literature.
In a parallel plot, the Earl of Gloucester is deceived by his illegitimate son Edmund into believing that his other son Edgar, born of marriage, is conspiring to overthrow his father. Though guiltless, Edgar is forced to flee while Edmund seeks alliance with the enthroned sisters. Gloucester recognizes his folly in judging his two sons. Jealousy and mistrust between Goneril and Regan further poison the air. Things don't fare well for any of these earls, dukes, daughters, sons, or their king, and the tragedy swings a wide and bloody scythe.
The play is paced crisply by director Haj, never allowing for a pause in the rising strife and crashing egos, yet allowing for the text and unfolding events to be clearly understood and their emotional impact to be absorbed. Stephen Yoakam is terrific as Lear. Yoakam excels as an aging lion, roaring even as his instincts start to fail him. In the scenes where Lear is mad, Yoakam conveys not only the madness, but Lear's anger at the fates that allow him to go mad. I did not have the pleasure of seeing Nathaniel Fuller's Lear, though imagine it to be equally stirring, though likely striking a different note.
James A. Williams is magnificent as Gloucester, his soul torn asunder by his willingness to fall prey to deception. J.C. Cutler brings out the strength and firm goodness of Kent, one of the few characters who chooses what is right over what is politic. Jason Rojas (who stepped into the part just before the play's opening) is heartbreaking as Edgar, blindsided by his naiveté and thus made to suffer, yet rising to heroic kindness in giving comfort to his tortured father. As his evil half-brother Edmund, Thomas Brazzle impresses with his malevolent swagger and rationalization of evil. Kate Nowlin plays Goneril as a cool ice queen, maintaining a placid exterior, while Sun Mee Chomet is a bolt of fire as Regan, her emotions ungovernable. Kim Wong has far less to do as Cordelia, but makes clear the virtue in her temperance, and the sincerity of her heart. Armin Shimerman draws out the irony in Lear's Fool's commentary of events, reflecting but never making excuses for them.
This occurs under a massive canopy, the foundation of Marion Williams' set, that rises from the rear and is suspended over the entire thrust stage. It resembles the interior ceiling of a planetarium, creating a sense of Lear's kingdom being a world unto itself. As we enter, a banquet table and gilded chares are on a raised platform in back; before the play proper begins, costumed servants (Jennifer Mueller's suave costumes suggest the 1920s) carry out plates and bowls, pour drinks, light candles, making everything ready for an elegant formal dinner, on which great care is lavished. In fact, once Lear erupts, the dinner is forgotten, never eaten. It's as if that event was the peak from which civilization quickly falls. Jennifer Tipton's lighting design creates performances spaces, including one chilling slash of light that crosses the stage diagonally and works with Darron L. West's sound design as partners to the actors in bringing the fury of the text to life. Their light and sound make palpable the fury of the storm and the roar of battle.
Perhaps it is the times that engulf us, but it is difficult to view this Lear without finding parallels between the tragedy of that king and his daughters with the rise and fall of our current national leaders. The role of vanity, deception, self-interest, using words to conceal rather than to reveal one's purpose all swim to the surface. Yet, it is not that Haj has "politicized" the play. His powerful mounting draws out the truth in the bard's timeless text, and the nightly news does the rest. This is a great King Lear for any season; in our current season it is essential.
King Lear continues at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage through April 2, 2017, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets are $19.00 to $77.00. Seniors (65+), College Students (with ID) and Active Military - $3.00 off per ticket. Public Rush line for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $15.00 - $30,00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit GuthrieTheater.org.
Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: Joseph Haj; Set Design: Marion Williams; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Music: Victor Zupanc; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Fight Director: Casey Kaleba; Stage Manager: Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Director: e.g. bailey; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound)
Cast: Thomas Brazzle (Edmund), Shá Cage (France/messenger), Sun Mee Chomet (Regan), J.C. Cutler (Kent), Nathaniel Fuller (King Lear/old man), Charity Jones (first knight/gentlewoman/officer), Nathan Keepers (Burgundy/first servant), Kris L. Nelson (Oswald/attendant), Kate Nowlin (Goneril), Howard W. Overshown (Cornwall), Jason Rojas (Edgar), Armin Shimerman (Fool/messenger/herald), David Whalen (Albany), James A. Williams (Gloucester), Kim Wong (Cordelia), Stephen Yoakam (King Lear/old man). Ensemble: Mitchel Carlyle, Patrick Dea, Lolly Foy, Kevin A. Gotch, Marquis Hickman, Taliah Howze-el, Tyler Miller, Maria C. Perez, Sequoia Rhian, and Chaz Truog.