Theater Review: “King Lear”
King Lear, Richmond Shakespeare’s inaugural installment in this year’s Richmond Shakespeare Festival (the second offering this summer is Two Gentleman of Verona), is a downright electrifying dramatization of William Shakespeare’s tragedy.
To add to the pulsating energy of director James Alexander Bond’s authentic, classically staged production, you feel like you are actually seeing this performance unfold at The Bard’s Globe Theater because the piece is produced outside in the amphitheater of the historic Agecroft Hall, a Tudor country estate here in Richmond. If you can stomach three hours of richly vocalized iambic pentameter, it’s worth catching this show before the run ends July 3rd.
While Chicago playwright Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County catapulted the subject matter of deranged family dynamics to Pulitzer-Prize winning standards, Shakespeare, too, was aware that family problems make for compelling drama.
The production, in its most stripped down synopsis, is about a senile, paranoid king (Alan Sader) who, to avoid leaving his kingdom in abeyance, asks his three daughters to pledge their unconditional love to him. Cordelia (Jai Goodman), the youngest of the three, does not requite. Her ingratitude provokes King Lear’s rage and in disowning her banishes her from his fatherly love and his realm. Considering that Lear disinherits not only Cordelia, but also subsequently Goneril (Kerry McGee), and his eldest Regan (Sarah Jamillah Johnson) plots with her husband – the Duke of Cornwall (Ryan Bechard, who also choreographed all the action-packed sword fight scenes)– to orchestrate a coup d’etat against her father, this play is replete with vignettes of family turmoil.
Set against the backdrop of Agecroft’s Tudor architecture, director Bond deviates exponentially from his last undertaking – you may remember it for its succulent spoofery: Richmond Triangle Players’ Devil Boys From Beyond. He proved in that production back in March that he was a master of executing farce and slapstick comedy. In this production, however, starring TV commercial and screen actor Alan Sader as the titular sovereign King Lear, Bond has staged tragedy adeptly. The directorial interpretation emphasizes Lears’ ultimate supplication to the vices of his cosmic destiny: a fate that will reconcile Lear with Cordelia or bring further personal devastation (…you should see the show to find out which outcome predominates).
He has casted an ensemble of such high quality that, with the help of master of verse Melissa Carroll-Jackson, the complex and lush Shakespearean language – the kind of language Richmond Shakespeare artistic director Grant Mudge aims to bring audiences – dances off their tongues with unswerving fluency and harmony of sound. Even when the diction of the second act becomes more densely populated reflecting the plot’s rising momentum accelerated by Lear’s declining mental stability, I was able to follow the dialogue as if it were 21st century English literature.
King Lear is an irrational, impressionable monarch and victimized, grieving father. The question in this performance is which side will Alan Sader be sympathetic to in his characterization. Sader, whose penetrating vocal color paints Richard Moxley’s set design with an undertone of dismal, yet baritone, emotion hauntingly oscillates, epileptically, between the two until he converges into a frolicking, mercurial lunatic.
While preeminent Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom asserts that Lear is an unactable part, Sader has learned from the mistakes of his predecessors to avoid making his transformation from egomaniac father to hysterical primate in Act I’s first scene appear too instantaneous and perplexing. There’s none of those sudden exclamations here. I’m convinced Sader is the definitive personification of King Lear: he doesn’t respond viscerally to Cordelia’s ingratitude but instead retaliates like a bewildered, battered father whose daughter has viciously torn out his heart. We sympathize with his torment in this scene, and his rash abjuration of Cordelia (Jai Goodman’s portrayal is assured, but a wee too soft and timid) seems commensurate with her self-righteous disposition.
Instead, his steadily, decidedly decaying thought processes are visible throughout the performance: He puts on a hallucinated trial against his recalcitrant daughters; he howls invocations to the Greco-Roman gods; he gravels in the dirt with the blinded Earl of Gloucester – acts of increasing mania that his regression into a crownless, shroud wearing screwball makes The Madness of King George III look sane.
But, Sader’s stardom doesn’t outshine the ripeness of this ensemble of fifteen. The stone-cold fox Adrian Rieder acts as Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, and this is his most beguiling, honest portrayal I have seen him in since The Winter’s Tale last winter. Sarah Jamillah Johnson’s Regan – Lear’s most deceptive, immoral daughter – gave me chills as she, like a vulture, interrogated the Earl of Gloucester (and I have to add that she and Ryan Bechard have some of the best, and hottest, sexual chemistry I’ve seen yet on the Richmond stage). Kerry McGee as Gonreil, Walter Schoen as the Earl of Gloucester, and Foster Solomon as the Earl of Kent are of equal evocative intensity, and Thomas L. Cunningham’s fool is as mad as a hatter. Standout Charley Raintree transforms himself from Gloucester’s heir Edgar into Poor Tom like a grotesque Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings but with a whispering, Irish accent wearing nothing but some ragged underwear. The cast never falters dramatically and humorously even as Act II’s deceleration in the show’s home stretch lessened its ending’s anticipated, needed pathos.
Rebecca Cairns’ and Ann Hoskin’s Celtic-inspired costumes fit the period well with intricate medieval design patterns colored with reds, greens, and blues juxtaposed against Lears’ white shroud as he sulks vulnerably like an asylum patient awaiting fate’s final decree. Maja E. White’s lighting design helps to create the play’s iconic storm – it was so credible that I was worried a real storm was brewing above my head as my attention was wholly transfixed on Richmond Shakespeare’s magnum opus. Pack a picnic, grab some friends, and see this show!
“King Lear” runs through July 3, 2011 at Agecroft Hall as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.richmondshakespeare.com/default.asp. Photo by Eric Dobbs Photography.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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