Sunday, February 19, 2017

King Lear (A Noise Within’s 2017 Production) Theatre Review

Press photo by Craig Schwartz
What is the greatest artistic achievement in human history? A case can certainly be made for William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy Of King Lear (it is either that or Hamlet). A Noise Within, celebrating its 25th anniversary as a theatre company, is now running a new production of King Lear that boasts a phenomenal cast. Particularly noteworthy is Trisha Miller as Goneril. In fact, hers might be the best Goneril I’ve ever seen. Erika Soto is also excellent as Cordelia. And of course, the entire play really does hinge on its Lear, and Geoff Elliott does a tremendous job, hitting all the right notes and even delivering some wonderful surprises in his line readings.

The play is given a more modern setting, with many of the characters in military uniforms, showing that Lear’s choices affect the entire country and not just his family. The set at the beginning is simple and sparse, dominated by greys. The backdrop is a wall that looks like wet concrete blocks, and it has several doors that aren’t apparent until they’re opened. Tables, chairs and other stage pieces are used throughout the production, and the set changes are done quite quickly, never slowing the action. The only stage pieces that I found unnecessary were the ladders, which momentarily shifted my concern to the actors and away from their characters.

As the play opens, the entire company comes on stage for an interesting, slow motion stage picture before the production moves into the first scene with Gloucester, Kent and Edmund. Gloucester and Kent are in military dress, while Edmund wears a suit and glasses. Edmund (Freddy Douglas) is quite composed and business-like, with a slightly frightening tone to his voice at times, like in his speech about nature later on. Lear is in full military dress, and uses a walking stick. His three daughters are seated downstage, facing Lear who is, of course, center stage. The daughters’ dresses for this opening scene are solid colors – Goneril in purple, Regan in blue, and Cordelia, interestingly, in a color that is something between purple and blue. It’s interesting, because that color doesn’t immediately separate her from her sisters, but rather indicates that she might in fact have a combination of their traits. She is, however, farther downstage than the other two, the three creating a triangle.

As I mentioned, Trisha Miller is particularly good as Goneril. Her Goneril is human, at times even compassionate, and her actions are understandable. She is not played as a simple villain, as is sometimes done. And when she is asked by Lear to first say how much she loves him, she is actually surprised, which is a great moment. Regan (Arie Thompson) then has had a moment to prepare, and is able to be a bit more cunning. Cordelia’s asides, by the way, are cut from this scene. Asides are basically cut from this production, although of course some of Edmund’s long speeches are directed at the audience. The one aside that I feel shouldn’t be cut is Goneril’s “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine,” but of course by that point it would be strange for a character to suddenly offer an aside when none other has been presented thus far. When it is Cordelia’s turn to express her love for her father, she and Lear actually switch places on the stage, which is really interesting, because it shows perhaps an eagerness on his part to place himself under her rule, and of course toward the end she is almost like the parent. Geoff Elliott is excellent in this rather difficult scene. I love that he laughs at her “Nothing,” leading the others in applause at her “joke.” And when it becomes clear to him that she is not joking, they again exchange places, which is telling also, for it shows that now Lear wishes to retain the power of the king, that in some way he is not ready to relinquish it, though by now he has already promised the other two daughters his kingdom. Also wonderful is that Goneril, Regan and their husbands seem shocked when Lear gives them Cordelia’s part of the kingdom. This is not something they had expected or hoped for.

By the way, this production follows the folio in presenting Kent’s line to Lear as “Reserve thy state” rather than the quarto’s “Reverse thy doom.” Lear grabs Kent by the throat in his rage, which leads nicely to Kent’s “Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat.” By then, Lear has let go. Lear’s love for Cordelia is clear from the beginning, and when he says “nor shall ever see/That face of hers again,” his voice breaks a bit, which is wonderful. Interestingly, when most everyone has exited, Cordelia suddenly gives voice to her grief, and Goneril and Regan actually go to comfort her. Again, it’s excellent to show the sisters as compassionate at the beginning. Even though they know that Lear prefers Cordelia, they don’t necessarily hold it against her.

As Lear and Cordelia change positions in that scene, Gloucester and Edmund do so in the following scene. The differences in their relationship, compared to that of Lear and Cordelia, are highlighted almost by the similarity of action. Because in this case, Edmund has taken Gloucester’s seat without permission, so that when Gloucester (Apollo Dukakis) enters, Edmund quickly gets up, relinquishing the seat to his father. This also hints at what is to come in their relationship. This production really does an excellent job at establishing relationships through the positioning of characters in relation to one another. Edmund takes the chair again when Gloucester exits. Edgar (Rafael Goldstein), by contrast, is more casually dressed than Edmund, showing that he is more secure in his state and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

When we see Goneril again, she is dressed in dark blue, which is closer to the color of the military outfits, a nice touch showing the change in her position. And when we see Kent (Stephen Weingartner) again, his disguise is believable. Often in Shakespeare plays when someone is in disguise, folks in the audience wonder, how could the others not recognize him or her? But Kent appears with shaved head and an eye patch, and uses a different accent, all of which make it quite believable that Lear and the others would not recognize him. Of course, at some point the Fool (Kasey Mahaffy) recognizes him, but Fools always possess that kind of wisdom. The Fool, by the way, is dressed in a somewhat busy suit and a bowler, the bowler acting as his coxcomb. The scene with Goneril and Lear is especially good, as both are sympathetic. I love that Goneril is visibly hurt when Lear curses her to be barren. At one point she even leans on the table for support during Lear’s “thankless child” speech. And when Lear collapses into a chair, Goneril steps toward him as if to comfort him, which is such a nice touch, showing that even in her upset state she still instinctively cares for Lear. And we see very clearly the turn she takes toward anger, and it’s entirely understandable. As I mentioned before, Trisha Miller’s performance as Goneril is outstanding.

In the scene with Edmund and Edgar, Edmund wounds his own arm before calling Edgar in, rather than after Edgar has left, which is odd. Wouldn’t Edgar notice that cut? Regan then aids Edmund, and shows her absolute and sudden delight when her husband extends his welcome to him, another wonderful moment. It is from a trash can that Edgar gets his Poor Tom disguise, which works well. Kent is chained to a metal gate rather than put in the stocks, so the word “stocks” is replaced by “shackles” each time. And when Regan mentions Lear dismissing half his train, it seems that has already happened, because by now we are seeing Lear with just his Fool and Kent. When Goneril arrives, she is clad in a fur coat, which is great, for it gives us an idea of the temperature (in addition to being an indication of her character), and a little later when Edgar – nearly naked as Poor Tom – claims to be cold, we certainly believe him. And we feel for Lear caught in the storm.

When we see Lear in the storm, his walking stick has been replaced with a rougher branch, which he raises above his head, perhaps to fight the heavens or perhaps asking to be struck by the storm, or perhaps both. It’s another excellent moment. (Gloucester will also use a branch to help him after he’s been blinded, a nice way of connecting those two characters.) Lear joins the Fool in his song. When Lear wants to try his daughters, he imagines them in positions close to where they were in their first scene, which is a nice touch. Though this time, they are together, because now in Lear’s mind, Regan and Goneril are the same. It’s a great way of recalling the first scene. And this production does it one more time near the end, creating a powerful image.

There are two major points of contention for me regarding this production – the way the Fool is dispatched and the way Gloucester’s leap is handled. All productions have to decide why the Fool isn’t in the later part of the play. Some people believe it’s because Lear has become a fool himself (as the Fool states several times), and so the Fool is no longer needed. Or Lear can no longer receive the wisdom the Fool has to offer, so far gone is he at this point. In practical terms, it is believed that the Fool and Cordelia might have been played by the same actor. But obviously some choice has to be made. I’ve seen at least one production where he is hanged, as Lear seems to indicate at the end (though it could be argued he is speaking of Cordelia at that point). This production provides its own explanation for why the Fool isn’t in the rest of the play, but does so by adding something that is certainly not a part of Shakespeare’s text. I won’t give away what that is here, but it is rather serious and could change the way you view at least one character.

As for Gloucester’s leap, it is done in a strange and confusing way. At the moment he is to jump, there is a sudden and brief blackout, and then we see him lying on the stage. To someone unfamiliar with the play, it might seem to indicate that he actually did jump off a cliff. Also, there are sound effects of the ocean and seagulls, which would lead one to think that Edgar did bring Gloucester to the ocean. But in the text, it is fairly clear that Edgar has not brought him anywhere near the sea. In fact, he asks Gloucester, “Hark! do you hear the sea?” And Gloucester answers, “No truly.” And then most of the dialogue between Edgar and Gloucester after the supposed leap is cut in this production, dialogue which would make clear the fact that Gloucester did not jump off a cliff.

There are a couple of minor bits of business that strike a false note, as when Lear has his hand down his shorts and then tells Gloucester “Let me wipe it first” after Gloucester asks to kiss his hand. But for the most part, this production does a fantastic job in both the larger moments and the smaller ones. I love Lear’s deliver of “Then there’s life in’t,” before he leads the soldiers in a chase. And Erika Soto is absolutely fantastic as Cordelia in the scene where she is reunited with Lear. She even takes a moment to regain strength in her voice before telling the others, “Still, still far wide.” It’s an incredible scene that had me in tears. And, as you might expect, the play’s final scene is also emotionally engaging. The cast does an excellent job throughout.

There is one intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene vi. By the way, during the curtain call, Cordelia and the Fool come out together, perhaps a nod to the belief that they were both originally played by the same actor.

King Lear runs through May 6th, in repertory with Ah, Wilderness! and Man Of La Mancha. The dates for King Lear are as follows: February 25, February 26, March 17, March 18, April 8, April 13, April 14, April 22, April 23, May 4, May 5, May 6. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. Free parking is located at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure.