Bleak and bristling: Post5’s ‘Lear’

Led by Tobias Andersen's perfectly balanced imbalanced king, a strong cast gets the new-look company's newest season off to a flying start

Over the last 55 years, King Lear has been staged more times than in the first 355 years after it was written. Much of the interest in Lear was revived by Peter Brooks’s 1971 film adaptation, which took a haunting look into politics, conflict, rivalry, and homelessness, and revealed an almost unbearable wasteland of emotion in the face of growing old. Before this landmark black-and-white film, Lear was, for the most part, too bleak for audiences in its original form. The ending was altered after Shakespeare’s death with a centuries-early Hollywood happy ending. No more of that.

Like the play itself, Post5 has been changing, but it still begins its new season with the Bard – and with a Lear to remember.

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Post5 Theatre photo

Tobias Andersen as Lear: a rage upon the heath. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Tobias Andersen delivers his King Lear with a perfect balance of anger, regret, confusion, delirium, and torment. It takes stamina to bring this alive on stage. Andersen works into the monumental role with an even pacing that swings to a crescendo at the most important and famous of scenes, along with a few that are the focus of Post5’s production. He begins as an upright, square-shouldered regent. In the opening scene, when he asks his daughters who loves him the most, Andersen is severe with his demands. He has no grasp on the dominoes that begin to fall rapidly out of place. Andersen plays Lear as the real-life Celtic pagan king would have looked at the world, a victim of the fickle gods and circumstance. His descent into madness is less anxiety-provoking about how it will happen, and more the experience of watching a superb veteran actor unweave the tapestry of Lear’s mind.

Director Rusty Tennant brings out the best skills and attributes of each actor, bringing dynamism to the rapidly changing scenes in Lear. He fosters a growing chemistry among the actors that reinforces the arc of the story. Tennant paints the scenes in Lear as a full and finished canvas with little in the way of props and costuming, instead orchestrating and tempering the talents of his strong acting troupe. In addition to its high energy, Post5’s show offers a sophisticated interpretation of the relationships between the characters.

Ithica Tell, as Goneril, Lear’s faithless and despised eldest daughter, is statuesque in glittering gowns that frame and offset an aristocratic bearing. Shakespeare’s words, in her well-honed elocution, are like a thunderous clap cutting as precise as a diamond. The arch of an eyebrow, the wave of her fingertip make Tell’s Goneril a master of game theory and a garrison of cruelty, pushing aside humans as irrelevant chess pieces. You cannot believe that Goneril would ever have a feeling for another person, much less the tenderness to be a mother. When her father says, “Dry up in her the organs of increase, And from her derogate body never spring a babe to honor her!,” Andersen’s Lear becomes a hailstorm of agony in the face of Goneril’s false love: in his shaking upright hands, his regal pillar begins to melt. Goneril crushes the masculinity of her husband, Albany (Keith Cable): “No, no, my lord, This milky gentleness and course of yours, Though I condemn not, yet, under pardon, You are much more at task for want of wisdom, Than praised for harmful mildness.” Her performance is predatory, not the half-vision of a weak person who retaliates with passive-aggressive blows, but the shakedown of a well-practiced sociopath.

The mean girls: Jessica Tidd as Regan, Ithica Tell as Goneril. Post5 Theatre photo

The mean girls: Jessica Tidd as Regan, Ithica Tell as Goneril. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Jessica Tidd is Regan, the other half of Lear’s impious heirs, a voluptuous Venus in furs, whose beauty is grey-panned under the calculating coldness of her temperament. She is sexy, but not sensual; and all id. Watching her licentious gimme gimmes pitched at everyone in her path, your anticipation shrugs off her sartorial splendor and lies in wait for her fall. When she becomes sick at the end of the play, the convulsions of her body and her desperation to reach her of her hand to her mouth in time are violently real.

Dainichia Noireault’s Cordelia, the good sister, is not a dewy eyed youth who suffers in sweet silence over her father’s transformation. She plays the part in a straightforward shock, one that reflects off of Andersen’s Lear.

Post5’s Lear shuffles the motives of the Goneril/Regan alliance and Edmund (Heath Hyun) and creates a compelling dynamic between the errant sisters. Edmund is still the regretful and angry illegitimate son of Gloucester, but his anger with nature is at the superstitious worship he sees all around him. His vanity and ego become the necessary arrogance to pull off his plot to work his way to the top of the aristocratic food chain. But, he’s no Machiavelli. There lies a great underscore to this staging – that Edmund is not a prince, and his failing is the result of conceit. Goneril and Regan are the real political relatives of the Medici: any means to their end. They work in tandem at abandoning their father, watching his madness with the same embarrassment and manipulating with a practiced aura.

Jim Vadala’s Edgar, Gloucester’s legitimate son, starts off as a pious trust fund brat, whose ignorance of the world is quickly turned inside out, into a writhing, broken-hearted, homeless beggar (now called Tom) on the far reaches of human touch. Lear meets him in the celebrated storm, which is not a special effect allegory for the last breaths of his sanity, but instead an existential tundra of the forgotten on the margins of society. Andersen’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” becomes a tempest of outrage at the futility of having invested in life. Lear’s bewildered words for his own transformation into the forsaken become a lucid incantation for the dignity of Tom. Here, Post5 concentrates more on Lear’s growing empathy for Tom. At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.

Phillip J. Bern’s last performance was as a disturbed and naked Peter Strang in Post5’s Equus. Now in stark comparison, he plays a psychedelic shade as the king’s Fool. His blotted and smeared clown makeup and lithe figure illustrate a full picture of the Fool as a person living in the veil between the physical and the world of the psyche. He laughs, rhymes, and incants a primal, but not human, element. Bern’s Fool gives not riddled counsel or amusing character attacks, but becomes a shadow of Lear’s departing sanity and lost love.

Longtime Portland actor Todd Van Voris is the loyal and noble Kent, and his classically trained delivery creates a forceful but eloquent life in his speeches and sparks an empathy for the anti-hero king. Van Voris rolls across stage in his customary grace, playing Kent’s lines as though he were born to them. His strength and conviction light up the stage, and his narration between scenes frames the deliveries of his fellow performers.

Todd Van Voris as Kent, Andersen as Lear, Philip J. Berns as the Fool. Post5 Theatre photo

Todd Van Voris as Kent, Andersen as Lear, Philip J. Berns as the Fool. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

When Gloucester (Jim Butterfield) is laid back in the chair for Cornwall (Sam Holloway) to pluck his eyes out, Holloway takes on the look of a modern-day petty tyrant, a kind of white-collar manager whose imaginary control is as close as he’ll get to power. He holds an eye in his hand for a moment, and as the liquid falls from his hand, the horror of what once was part of Gloucester’s body lies on the floor like a broken egg.

Post5 company member Stan Brown has delivered many great supporting roles, and his performance in Lear as Oswald, the messenger, is charming, mischievous and scintillating. His ability to inply just a little more meaning into a line with a lean-in and piercing attention from his eyes is more composed in Lear, and the new restraint gives a new weight to his interpretation.

This production’s switchblade fights have enough ballet to them to be an illusion, but Tennant’s expertise at fight choreography creates a real uneasiness as the light first hits the silver when the blade opens and the suspense builds on where and when, and on whom the fatal blow will fall. Edgar and Edmund’s final confrontation is extreme, the kind you would imagine the devil-may-care painter Caravaggio enjoying.

In the final moments, Andersen’s Lear is slumped, hunchbacked, and frail. In a sick but realistic irony, as he wails desperately over his loss of his only real love, his dead daughter Cordelia, his sanity returns. Lear falls into death naturally. His battle is over; peace has begun. When Edgar and Albany join hands and assume reign of the land, Edgar places the fool’s hat upon his own head, and we’re reminded that the cycle of politics as usual will continue and there is a fine line between genius and madness.

*

On an ending note, the consensus has been that Post5’s triple-headed new direction with Rusty Tennant, Paul Angelo and Patrick Walsh taking over from the departed Ty and Cassandra Boice would take the theater’s great resources – a good company of actors, a devoted audience, a potentially wonderful space – in a new direction that would round out and fill in the areas where the company could grow. The new artistic directors have experience with cutting-edge, dark, and complicated material that can add new dimension to Post5. King Lear seems to bear out this promise, and I suspect a few pleasant surprises to come in this season. The hard work the company’s put into reimagining its Sellwood space has paid off: it’s more accessible, the rebuilt stage has more opportunity for plays to be developed in bigger directions, and the Gothic vaulted ceiling is appreciated. The Boices started and laid a foundation for one of Portland’s most interesting houses, and this new team has forged a promising path in just a few short months.

*

Post5’s King Lear continues through March 19. Ticket and schedule information here.

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