Theater review: Climbing ‘King Lear’

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.

I love this beginning because it makes the “action” interior (“This tempest in my mind…”), removing those Romantic storm-wracked heaths and castles from the play, and it democratizes the “King” part of the play: We all think we are kings of our own castles, right?  Even if our estates are reduced to a single room with a hospital bed? And the transformation of the old man in the wheelchair into King Lear (with a paper crown perched on his head) is magical, as Tim Blough shakes himself clear of the mumbles and the wheelchair.

And then we off and running into “Lear.”  Kretzu, Shakespeare Project artistic director Michael Mendelson and the cast culled its playing company down to six and trimmed it radically. With intermission, it lasted around 2.5 hours. The company does some doubling. Dainichia Noreault plays both Cordelia and the Fool, for example, which is fairly common these days, even in larger scale versions of the play, and Dana Millican plays both Regan and then the villainous Edmund.

Tim Blough as King Lear, Portland Shakespeare Project/David Kinder

This version moves along briskly, but more importantly it’s clear and well-acted. I liked the power and malignity of Allison Tigard’s Goneril, Grant Byington’s descent into blindness as Lear’s double Gloucester, Matthew Kerrigan’s turn as the victimized Edgar (who doesn’t stay the victim long), along with the flexibility of Noreault and Millican.  And Blough makes a terrific Lear, so sure and imperious and then so reduced and addled.

What did I miss? The character of Kent, who before the Fool comes along, is willing to speak truth to power, and the fullness of Edmund’s evilness, maybe. And then the grandeur of the full-scale play. “Lear” is full of debauchery and treachery, doublings and moments of grotesque comedy (as Kott pointed out so well in “Shakespeare Our Contemporary”), an entire rhetoric of silence, where language cannot go (as Marjorie Garber points out in “Shakespeare After All”), hints of Pinter and Beckett that crash into melodrama and dark Jacobean doings (torture and poisoning, that sort of thing). Play it all and it can feel as though you are playing the whole world.

I didn’t miss the invasion by the King of France at all, though. And the compensation of this version is that you start to notice stuff that might otherwise get lost, the astrology references, for example.  But then that always happens to me in “Lear,” something pops out I’d forgotten about.

Allison Tigard, Dana Millican and Tim Blough/David Kinder

I do wish, though, that the production returned a couple more times to the room in the nursing home, explicitly, with that “click,” to re-situate us in the reverie, to reconnect to the metaphor at the center of “Lear,” the dissection of what “need” means, what “needs” are, the reduction to the most simple human atom, and then… beyond.  The production gets back to it at the very end, but in a way that is to me problematic (and which I won’t discuss here, for spoiler reasons—for that matter, I’m assuming readers know “Lear” at least in its outlines).  I think a return before intermission to that stumbling old man in the wheelchair and his family waiting around him, might have helped keep the logic of the interpretation more firmly in place.

I have to admit that I’m for pushing interpretations to their limits, just to see what will happen. And it’s entirely possible that Kretzu and company tried this and it didn’t work for some reason. Maybe it made the play too long? Maybe the sense of “Lear” itself got lost? Maybe they thought it would be too hard for the audience to track? But I liked this idea so much, because it fits our time so well, that I wanted to see it screwed to the sticking point.

Maybe this is sounding as though I didn’t enjoy this “Lear”? That would be wrong. I liked it a lot, and I suspect you will, too, whether you are deeply committed to Shakespeare or not.

****

My own “Lear” at this moment, the “Lear” in my head, is an “Occupy Lear,” the “Lear” for the 99 percent.  Lear is a one-percenter, of course, at the start of the play. Then he divests himself of his kingdom, dividing it among his heirs, though keeping a rather large pension to sustain him for the rest of his life. But he entrusts that pension fund to those heirs, and pretty soon, he’s out on that blasted heath, stripped to the shirt on his back. Crazy, he says, “Off, off, you lendings! Come, unbutton here,” and even the shirt is gone, as he goes from the “accommodated” king to the “unaccommodated” commoner.

Here’s Lear: “Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,/ That Bid the pelting of this pitiless storm, /How shall your hoseless heads and unfed sides,/Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these?/O, I have ta’en/Too little are of this.”

Gloucester, similarly shrunken, though blinded instead of mad, starts to see things as they are, too, and offers his purse to “Tom” (really Edgar in disguise) and says, “Heavens deal so still./Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man… feel your power quickly./So distribution should undo excess,/And each man have enough.”

Shakespeare hated the chaos created by misrule, and in “King Lear” he punished misrule and its conceits (“speak not of need,” Lear says, as he argues for his opulent pension, which in this case is a 100 knights and their pages), and when Shakespeare punishes, he REALLY punishes: Lear has everything taken from him, even the daughter who truly loved him.

On the other hand, I once considered the grotesquely comic version (suggested by Kott) to be my imaginary favorite.

****

I like to imagine a theater that only plays “King Lear.” Year after year, only “Lear.” Actors come and go, they interpret the play differently, as times change and they emphasize one aspect or another, one side of a character as opposed to another. Maybe the Goneril is terrific, and she becomes the center of the play for a while, or maybe it’s Edgar, and he pushes the Christian imagery in the play to the front.

The theater is small, but the performances continue. And when we need a “Lear,” it’s there. In fact, we use it to check in on ourselves and the movement of the culture as a whole. And maybe an actor who has played Lear for an uncommonly long time.

I talked to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s James Edmondson about playing Lear just as he was about to embark on something more than 100 performances in the role. Really, all I remember about the conversation was the way he seemed to have steeled himself for the task. So an exhausted Lear was in the back of my mind when I saw the Portland Shakespeare Project’s Lear in a wheelchair, barely audible.

****

Shakespeare’s Fools are great characters, and the Fool in “Lear” is no exception. In this production the Fool is Noreault, who won a Drammy for her “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” and has a lot of Shakespeare work on her resume.

She brings her Cordelia with her to the Fool. She speaks the truth to Lear (as Cordelia does) but is also compassionate towards him (ditto), tender, protective. I’ve always wondered at both the Fool’s and Cordelia’s loyalty, because surely this King was not that easy to serve, either as Fool or as Daughter. Why stick with him?

Noreault answers that with her performance: There aren’t good reasons for compassion, necessarily, let alone for love. Expressed powerfully, they make their own reasons.

 

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