theater (reviews)

review: king lear

[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-LEAR-06.html]

KING LEAR

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Falls
Starring Stacy Keach
Goodman Theatre
170 North Dearborn / (312) 443-3800
goodmantheatre.org
Extended Through October 22, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
September 27, 2006

In “King Lear” at the Goodman Theatre we are told repeatedly, by various characters in various ways, that “nothing can come from nothing”. In fact, a great deal of something emerges out of the orgy of chaos created by director Robert Falls, his set designer Walt Spangler, lighting designer Michael Philippi, sound designer Richard Woodbury, costumer designer Ana Kuzmanic, and a fabulous cast. I believe this production will be discussed for some time to come.

Child loyalty and greed, legitimacy and illegitimacy, and the fine line between passion and violence are all thrillingly evoked in this production. At first blush, the costuming themes might have been suggested by the fascist “Richard III” filmed by Ian McKellen in the 1990s, yet our tour goes in another direction. This production’s action begins as a decadent Slavic Euro Trash retirement party for Lear (Stacy Keach) in which characterizations are telegraphed from the first moments. Daughter Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotton) stares down the men, stalks the stage, drags her fur behind her with abandon. Daughter Regan (Kate Arrington) is already so obliviously gluttonous that she glugs a series of drinks so quickly that the liquid runs down her chin, onto her party dress. Cordelia (Laura Odeh), the sole daughter who loves Lear without pretense and without motive, is quiet, subdued, and dressed least flamboyantly. Lear’s obtuseness and insecurity are laid bare – he blatantly craves the adulation he will miss when he steps down, and is unable to discern the “true” from the “false” shows of love all around him. Finally, we see the male characters displaying their roles to power through their wives — Goneril’s husband Albany (Kevin Gudahl) and Regan’s husband Cornwall (Chris Genebach) — or through their claim to legitimacy — Gloucester (Edward Gero), his legitimate son Edgar (Joaquin Torres) and illegitimate son Edmund (Jonno Roberts). The magic of this story and these performances is that legitimate and illegitimate claims to relationships and connections to power predict very little about individual behavior. Surprises abound, and magnificently rich performances stud this production.

At our initial proto Slavic family gathering with the handheld microphone moving from testimonial to testimonial, Regan and Cordelia are first up, of course, to curry favor and to offer obsequious words to Dad. True blue Cordelia isn’t having any of this game; and the King is not amused. “Nothing will come of nothing” he warns her, yet Cordelia will not be cajoled into offering false praise. This image of the house microphone at the wedding reception and rented public hall testimonials is genius. This prop and all it symbolizes is established here in this first scene, and makes a chilling and surprising return appearance at the play’s end.

Lear’s mad scene does not disappoint. His constant companion Fool (brilliantly played by Howard Witt) offers commentary and encouragement, and prompts Lear to some semblance of awareness. Lear and the Fool ramble and rant, the rain falls the fall the full height of the three-story Goodman stage; ruins and junk piles surround them; and strobe lights and cracks of thunder provide edgy parameters to the action.

An intense sexuality is generated between sisters Goneril and Regan, balanced by the Joan of Arc-like persona and solitary life of Cordelia, defending her father and their lands. In fact, these daughters overwhelmed for me the performances of the men on stage. In particular, Kim Martin-Cotton’s Goneril has the deep vocal qualities and powerful and solid stage presence of actresses such as Kathleen Turner and Colleen Dewhurst and a deep boundless sensuality that lingers long after her final, explosive, stage actions.

Edgy violence is not at the boundaries but within these characters’ personalities, in the everyday relationships (from the expected such as physical fights between political enemies to the unexpected such as marital rape portrayed to illustrate power and control), and in images and references to off-screen action. One solemn silent sequence was among the most powerful passages I have seen on stage in some time. After many scenes of emotional and physical and aural (i.e. loud) violence, and in a visually tonal world of grays and blacks and dramatic reds, we suddenly have village women in black and male field medics in white slowly and deliberately and respectfully assemble on stage the bodies (clearly mannequins) of battle dead shrouded in white. Body after body is carried or dragged on stage. Nothing is romanticized, and nothing is easy about these deaths nor about the care necessary to deal with the corpses after death. This functions as a welcome and necessary pause in the verbal and blazingly cacophonous action of the play. I can still feel the piling of these shrouded bodies, in white, as silent testimonial to the human scale effects of the decisions of kings and of presidents.

This play leaves us in embattled and misguided political and human chaos, which resonates locally and globally these days. A muscular vision by Robert Falls to match the muscular language of this lovely play.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 27, 2006)

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