Quill Theatre’s ‘King Lear,’ a 1200-year-old dysfunctional family
King Lear may be the one you didn’t read in High School. Julius Caesar and Hamlet for sure, and in most schools Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet. Honors classes probably read Lear.
Because Shakespeare is forever in the zeitgeist, the rest of us probably know it’s about an old King who gives away his land to his daughters who throw him out as soon as possible – “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have an ungrateful child”. We might know he has a Court Jester or “Fool.”
All true. It’s mostly about a dysfunctional royal family. It’s also about being lost in a storm and coming back home. It is a Shakespearian Tragedy. Naturally many people die at the end.
A synopsis in less than a full page is futile. I will, however introduce the characters.
Lear’s daughters are Goneril, married to Duke of Albany; Regan, married to the Duke of Cornwall and Cordelia, eventually married to the King of France. Lear’s protector, or Chief of Security, is the Earl of Kent. Lear has a loyal Fool, who speaks truth to power through jesting.
There is a second plot. It’s the one we don’t know as well. It is about the Gloucester family. The Earl is Lear’s trusted advisor. He has two sons, the legitimate Edgar and the illegitimate Edmund.
Lear descends into madness, but starts off pretty wacky. He banishes the only daughter who loves him and he is humiliated and rendered homeless by the remaining two.
Edmund is a bastard, figuratively and literally. He plans the banishment of his brother and captures his father to be blinded by Cornwall.
The play’s structure is pure Shakespeare. People are in Royal Court and after misfortune, find themselves somewhere out in nature. The woods, the forest, the shore, the Moors. Here, the heart of the play takes place on the Moors where the downtrodden and discarded characters fight the violent elements of nature and each other.
Quill Theatre Company has staged this production at the Virginia Museum’s Leslie Cheek Theater. Dr. Jan Powell, their Artistic Director directs this production.
The best directorial decision was to ask Joe Inscoe to return to the stage for this role. Devouring one of the meatiest roles on Shakespeare’s rack, Mr. Inscoe digs in with gusto, fury and delicate shadings overthrown by violent tempests. His Lear is strong and defiant yet sympathetic and knowing. He’s a man in all sorts of pain. I have to admit that during some of his dazed moments I lost some words, but just watching his face and body told me everything I needed to know.
Mr. Inscoe was surrounded by fine supporting actors.
Bianca Bryan is just fascinating to watch. I’m pretty sure it’s her eyes. And her acting. She gives Goneril, a pill in my book, a delicious Evil Queen bearing and countenance that makes you want to hide your children.
I was very taken with Matthew Radford Davies’ essay on the Earl of Kent, Lear’s loyal protector. Mr. Davies gave vibrancy and panache to a role I usually ignore. I was very happy to be paying attention to him.
Edmund the Bastard is one of the most difficult Shakespearean characters to act. Edmund has often drawn comparisons to Iago from “Othello” in terms of villainy. But Edmund, recalcitrant and repressed is actually the larger enigma. Edmund is more frighteningly seductive. He is ice-cold, and as indifferent to Lear as he is to his own father Gloucester, his half-brother Edgar, or to his lovers Goneril and Regan.
Axle Burtness works very hard to get Edmund right and he’s very good. He has it all going on except for the very thing that makes Edmund frightening. I don’t know what it is or to what depths an actor has to go in order to find that coldness of that character. It’s elusive here and in general.
King Lear is as much Edgar’s play as it is Lear’s. The actor’s challenge is not to make Edgar too saintly nor Tom too preposterous. He abases himself by choosing a Bedlam escapee as a cover and preaching in rags. He moves in stealth like Smeagol and is unwilling to reveal himself to his father for longer than necessary.
David Janosik is a charismatic Edgar. Tall and physically imposing, he pounces from perch to perch like an ambush predator before plunging into swordplay or stage combat. I thought his Edgar, however, a bit odd. If he were a politician I’m not sure I’d know what he stood for. Heroic or reactionary? Naive or three steps ahead? It’s not easy to know and I’m not sure we get a clear answer.
I have to give a special shout out to Sam Carr, the son of good friends, who makes his professional debut in this production. Sam is one of those interns who plays messengers, warriors and other faceless parts. Welcome to the theatre, Sam!
Lear’s Fool is one of my favorite parts in Shakespeare. Sad and abused, the Fool delights in telling truth to power. He calls Lear “nuncle” and reminds Lear who the real fool is. He says all that we wish we could.
This production has two Fools, John Mincks and Killian Winn. I don’t know their exact ages but I’d say Mr. Mincks is in his early 20’s and Mr. Winn probably a pre-teen.
The “Child Fool” is a pretty interesting “Fellini-esque” concept. The problem is I’m not sure what the intent of this particular casting was. Having a youthful Fool smacks of mysticism in the Puck/Ariel tradition. Having two relatively young Fools defies reason. Why so young? Why two? The Fool has always seemed like a natural person to me. I’m sure Dr. Powell has a very good reason, but I’m not sure I understood it.
I think the relationship between the two works well. Mincks and Winn are adorable together. They frolic, tumble and run all over the place. Not always cleanly, but always with spirit.
What I wasn’t quite convinced of was their influence over Lear. You could say that they lacked a certain gravitas that Fools need to counsel, needle and scold their King.
I also think that for this interpretation to work, the two actors would need absolute harmony to keep the Fool’s statements clear and effective. A tall order for young actors and one not quite achieved here. It was not for lack of trying. Mincks is an actor who shows up to work. He has a depth that’s somewhat unnatural for a young man his age. Winn has the most difficult assignment of the evening. To play the fool at his age! He is a charming actor who in years to come will find the depth and projection that alluded him here.
They, as other performers, were hampered by bad acoustics. The Cheek stage is engulfed by heavy stage curtains which suck up sound. I also observed some actors giving their lines while exiting on a diagonal upstage, giving the lines, in effect, to the curtains. Stage microphones might have been useful.
I was distracted by the double casting of actors. People who are on the major character list showing up as someone less important is more than suspending belief, it is, however economically necessary, a distraction. In one scene the actor who played the murdered Cornwall shows up as a servant in the same house in front of his widow. I think a few more interns playing Messengers wouldn’t break the bank.
The swordplay between Edgar and Edmund comes, at one point, all the way downstage just feet away from the audience. At my performance front row patrons cowered. I think it was too close. I love the actors playing the roles but neither of them are fight masters.
Tennessee Dixon’s set was curious. Full of barren trees and non-descript boulders. Some more money could have gone into that.
The Tom Hammond costumes I enjoyed the most were the tattered storm-wear. The royal costumes didn’t grab me. I’m afraid I didn’t think the women’s costumes flattering at all.
The storm is a centerpiece of any production. This storm was ok. Fifteen seconds of what looked like snow or hail followed by fifteen minutes of flashing lights and thunder. BJ Wilkinson made the lightening very effective and Roger Price is the Thunder Master, but in whole, the storm lacked violence. My kingdom for a wind machine!
I love that King Lear gets produced often. It’s a thrilling play that is difficult to get right but as long as Quill Theatre wants to keep inventing, I’m more than happy to keep watching. Shakespeare – now “That’s Entertainment!”
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