dainichia noreault

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.

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Dainichia Noreault and Tim Blough, rehearsal photo/David Kinder

Pushed, I’d have to say that “King Lear” is Shakespeare at his very greatest—I just don’t have the stomach for it sometimes. (The great Polish critic Jan Kott called it “a high mountain that everyone admires, yet no one  particularly wishes to climb.”) It reveals too much about my own conceit, blindness, failure, weakness. It captures my rank calculations and measurements. It mocks my defense, that I am more sinned against than sinning. It is horrible.

Which may be why it became so central to the 20th century (and yes, I suppose the 21st, too). It strips us down to a quivering jelly of madness, like Lear, where we alternately scream for the annihilation of the world and just a moment’s pity for ourselves.

The Portland Shakespeare Project and director Jon Kretzu (the associate artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre) set their “Lear” in a nursing home, and its opening shudder into consciousness by an old man in a wheelchair is the beginning of an audacious gesture before Shakespeare’s play really begins.

The old man must have been dreaming Shakespeare, because he mutters, “Oh that this too solid flesh would melt away,” from “Hamlet,” but then he settles on Lear, mumbling the opening lines and calls for his map. It must be a frequent  dream because his daughters sitting around him respond when he asks them, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most…,” by stumbling over the first few lines of Goneril and Regan, before returning to their seats. They are playing along, but barely. The third sister, Cordelia, knits in her seat.

And then with a deep audible click from the offstage sound gods (meaning stage manager Tyler Ryan, I presume), the old man really is Lear, old but energetic, and we begin the play in earnest, though with this “meta” beginning, maybe we return to the old man’s dream because we spend the evening in his room, on and around his bed and a table filled with sheet cake, party favors and balloons that say, hilariously, “Happy Father’s Day.”

Dear Lear, This is NOT going to be a happy Father’s Day.

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