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King Lear

An Age of Disenfranchisement

Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Boise, Idaho
Tuesday, August 11, 2015, K–17&19 (second-level, left side)
Directed by Joseph Hanreddy

Lear, one knee on the ground, picking at the flor with his right fingers, wearing dirty white shirt and pants, his red regal sash, and the Fool's coxcomb covered in brambles
King Lear (Aled Davies) feeds some toasted cheese to his hallucinated mouse in Idaho Shakespeare Festival's production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Photo by by DKM Photography, Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

We know her. Heck, we see her kind in the audience. She is the fashionably dressed socialite carrying the $5,000 purse, sweet-seeming and sincere when it meets her ends, turning indignant at the merest hint of truth. We've seen him, too, ever-smiling like the young politician who is ambitious beyond his experience and deluded by his breeding into believing that his grin can disarm any objections to his ways and means—until he cuts out somebody's eyes.

Meet the Cornwalls, the Duke (Dustin Tucker) and his wife, King Lear's daughter Regan (Robyn Cohen). In Idaho Shakespeare Festival's modern-dress production of William Shakespeare's King Lear, they are the kind of people many of us would like to be: young and privileged, wealthy and powerful, happy and secure, good-looking and in love with each other—but maybe with themselves just a bit more. Underneath that veneer, though, is excessive ego, greed, and lack of long-term wisdom, all factors in bringing about the ultimate chaos at the climax of Shakespeare's most nihilistic play.

King Lear should make you weep at the end; this detail-rich, solidly performed production comes just short of the tears, but it succeeds in making you worry about what's in store for us as a society, and for you as a person inevitably aging.

King Leir ruled in prehistoric Britain, and the legend of him and his three daughters first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century account. Shakespeare's play maintains a grim fairy tale tone of distant time and place while still striking a contemporary chord. Director Joseph Hanreddy thus sets the action in a kingdom that, though it be Britain, seems to sit on the far eastern edge of Europe. Scenic Designer Linda Buchanan gives Lear a classic wood desk as his throne and a long banquet table for the manor house with a large cement-paneled wall and a gateway of translucent panels supported by tall wood beams as a backdrop (which receive serious damage from the hurricanoes and battle to come). The stage has a lower perimeter platform where trash piles up from various scenes, becoming the hovel during the storm where faceless homeless people huddle. During the battle, as the explosions of artillery and firearms shake the stage, refugees flee, suitcases in hand, resembling news footage of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Sound Designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen do exceptional work with the play's auralscape, including helicopters in search of Edgar.

The play's allegorical dating is in the hands of Costume Designer Martha Hally who dresses the characters in modern dress—or outdated dress, in the case of the dandy Duke of Burgundy (Ben Kemper) with his blue velvet leisure suit. These costumes speak volumes about the characters. Lear, Kent, the King of France, and Edmund wear imperial black dress army uniforms, but the Cornwall soldiers are modern Russian paratroopers and Albany's army wears NATO battle fatigues. Lear dresses as a gentleman farmer after his retirement, and after Kent (Dougfred Miller) transitions to his disguise as Caius, he comes on wearing old jeans and a hoodie. The illegitimate Edmund (Jonathan Dyrud), when not in uniform, is in Kmart blue jeans and work shirt whereas his legitimate brother Edgar (J. Todd Adams) dons the wealthy playboy garb of suede jacket and shoes, white pants and shirt, black vest, scarf knotted around his neck, and sunglasses perched atop his long hair—Edgar's transition to the grimy Poor Tom, wearing only his cut-off white pants, is most pronounced. The lords and servants wear three-piece suits, youngest daughter Cordelia (Cassandra Bissell) wears a simple, gray, ballet-length dress, and oldest daughter Goneril (Laura Perrotta) is coifed in a chin-length bob, wearing a retro-1960s earth-colored cocktail dress with jacket.

Middle daughter Regan puts on a fashion show. She looks hot in a white and gold form-fitting sleeveless brocade dress for the opening scene. She arrives at Gloucester's house wearing tight designer jeans, high-heeled boots, and shawl (remember that she made a hurried departure from her home). The next morning it's a brocade jacket, satin shirt, and high-heeled sandals. For Gloucester's eye-gouging, she's sporting a red dress with below-the-knee hem, short matching jacket with long black cuffs, and, of course, high heels. Later, with Goneril's servant Oswald, the now-widowed Regan still has on that red dress but no jacket. She oversees the battle in a leather waist jacket, skinny jeans, and high-heeled boots.

In the opening court scene, Regan and Cornwall greet Gloucester (David Anthony Smith) warmly as they come on stage, and this fits with how they later will call him "our good old friend"—until his actions run counter to their wills and they cut out his eyes and thrust him out into the elements. Regan is a woman of nervous motion, ready to jump in with her testimony of love before Lear orders Goneril to go first, and then sitting on daddy's lap at the conclusion of her own speech. She relies on alcohol to calm her nerves, downing four shots at the end of the opening scene (Goneril stops her from swallowing a fifth), and, after the battle, a can of beer containing "medicine" is her ultimate undoing.

The Cornwalls canoodle and confer with each other throughout the opening scene in stark contrast to the Albanys, Goneril and the duke (Stephen Mitchell Brown), who stand stiffly on the opposite side of the stage, a space of three feet or so between them. Albany's and Goneril's relationship devolves into openly verbal sparring, but Cornwall and Regan remain close-knit to his death at the hands of the servant trying to stop Cornwall from gouging out Gloucester's eyes. That Regan's not in black the next time we see her, that she's already angling for Edmund, and that she plants a kiss on Oswald (Peter Gosik) in a futile attempt to seduce him into sharing Goneril's letter he's carrying to Edmund are the portrait of a woman desperate not just to survive but to maintain her status.

Such gestures and behaviors in the opening scene inform the audience of the personalities that will dictate the plot to come. Everybody is shocked by Lear's decision to divide the nation according to "who loves him best" and confused by his berating of Cordelia when she doesn't play along with the charade. At the play's opening line, Kent is already peeved about the rumored division of the kingdom, and the clouds of concern gather darkly across Miller's face the more Lear veers into blind stupidity. Smith's Gloucester, who had left the stage to retrieve Burgundy and France (Neil Brookshire), takes on a "what the hell happened?" expression upon his return, seeing Kent banished and Cordelia dispossessed. Cordelia's reaction is most key because her asides in Shakespeare's text have been excised, a practice I normally berate; but Bissell's concerned glances at her sisters and father, and her move toward Kent for understanding make up for her lost lines.

The contrasts of the sisters play into the overall theme of Hanreddy's direction of King Lear, where elder abuse is juxtaposed to a society in which the greater haves abuse the lesser haves and ignore the have nots. To Cordelia, the plain, simple, truthful woman, her father is not just her father but also an old man deserving respect for being old. "Had you not been their father, these white flakes had challenged pity of them. Was this a face to be opposed against the warring winds?" she says to the sleeping Lear recovering from his madness. Goneril is determined to maintain a prim and proper standing, even though she "loves her husband not." Lear's riotous knights upset the equilibrium of her lifestyle (and in this production, in modern hunter's camouflage, these knights ransack Albany's dining room before they depart), and her intellectually somber bearings can't brook her father's emotional eruptions—nor for that matter her husband's dedication to Lear—as she tries to out-argue her father. Regan talks down to Lear as if he were a toddler—"I pray you, father, being weak, seem so"—and she is embarrassed by his increasingly erratic behavior. "Good sir, no more. These are unsightly tricks," she says, glancing furtively about at the rest of the company. Both daughters think they are treating their father respectfully in their way, yet in their way—as intellectually superior or as adult to child—they strive to assert their authority. As Lear slips from getting mad to being mad, they decide that he can't fit into their lifestyles, and they let him go.

Aled Davies's King Lear is not an endearing dad at the start, though he walks on stage holding Cordelia's hand. In that first scene, he reveals himself to be a man who is not only fully aware of the limitations of his age but subconsciously allowing that to sap him of his confidence, and he overcompensates with combativeness—even toward his own self: "I would not be mad!" He surrounds himself with young knights who exude virility, he slaps the behind of one of Goneril's maids, and he laces sexual innuendo through his speeches, even after he goes mad, masturbating during his "riotous appetite" speech to the blind Gloucester in the Dover field.

The moment this Lear succumbs to madness is resolutely clear. After the last bell rings the end of intermission, the winds blow down parts of the back wall and Davies steps through to begin his rage on the heath; the Fool soon joins him, urging the king to take shelter. But when Lear reaches the point of assuring that "Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters," the Fool turns his back to the audience, the sound system broadcasting the storm goes mute, and Davies begins moving in slow motion, the lights casting two separate shadows of him onto the wall (lighting design by Paul Miller). "I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness," he says calmly but with faraway look. "I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children. You owe me no subscription: then let fall your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave, a poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man," and Davies smears the phrase old man with disdain.

Tom Ford as the Fool is the play's thematic barometer. We hear that he has gone missing from Lear's company upon the banishment of Cordelia, and when he first appears in a brown suit he's carrying a suitcase—just coming back or about to leave for good? He cracks his jokes like a Borsch Belt comic, bada-binging with big grins but with little heart in his occupation, ready to give his coxcomb to the disguised Kent. He is, as Lear calls him, a bitter fool. "I would not be you," the Fool says of Lear with sour truth. Yet, in the scene in which he and Lear banter alone with each other, the Fool puts on white face makeup, a red nose, bright tie, and baggy knee-length pants. Wearing his red coxcomb, his show must go on. The moment in the hovel overwhelms him, unable to deal with Lear's madness and upset over Poor Tom joining the entourage. Poor Tom at first gives the Fool a real case of the heebie-jeebies, but in time the Fool sees the disguised Edgar's antics and even Lear's behavior as so ridiculous that even a professional Fool has no place here. He removes his nose and face paint and departs in the opposite direction when Lear and Kent head to Dover. Lear, by the way, appears in Dover wearing the Fool's coxcomb.

With Davies as Lear and Bissell as a sweet but commonsense Cordelia, we have the makings for hurricanoes of tears at the end, and their reunion scene is a moving one. But when Davies brings the dead Cordelia onto the stage for the final scene, he speaks the four "howls" rather than, well, howling them. It's enough to make me mad. I am all for fealty to the text; however, though part of an iambic pentameter structure, the four howls are the ultimate moment of Lear's woes, and they should be blown forth to echo in our hearts and rattle through our souls. In a nice piece of staging, though, Lear dies peacefully, almost unnoticeably in Kent's arms.

Lear stands in white untucked shirt, brown pants, suspenders, and red and brown scarf about his kneck, fool in white knee pants, socks, shirt, black suspenders, red-striped tie, red nose and white face with coxcomb sits, Edgar as Poor Tom with blanked around him and only in white cutoffs stands holding  up two flashlights, and Kent in black stocking  cap, gray hoody, fingerless gloves, and blue jean sits, all ecept the Fool looking at a mob stuck into a joint stool; Fool is looking up at Lear.
From left, King Lear (Aled Davies), the Fool (Tom Ford), Edgar as Poor Tom (J. Todd Adams), and Kent as Caius (Dougred Miller) put Goneril (a mop in a joint stool) on trial. Photo by DKM Photography, Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

Yet another character's tragedy comes to a fitting conclusion in the climactic finale: Edmund's. In the play's opening scene, Edmund walks on stage as Gloucester and Kent are talking. Gloucester tries to shoo him away, but Kent notices and asks, "Is not this your son, my lord?" In his reply, Gloucester admits, "I have so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am brazed to it." Edmund is not only the bastard son and the younger brother to Edgar, he is of no consequence for both reasons. Dyrud speaks his "Stand up for bastards" soliloquy as more of a lament over his circumstances than a rallying cry for evil, but that disenfranchisement nevertheless sends him down the path of villainy (in obvious contrast to the Cornwalls, whose ultraenfranchisement feeds a greed that sends them down their path of villainy).

Edmund's redemption comes the moment he sees the bodies of Regan and Goneril, the latter poisoning the former and then taking her own life over love of Edmund. "Yet Edmund was beloved," Dyrud says truly touched, and soon after promises "some good I mean to do, despite of mine own nature." But he, of course, is already dying from the wound Edgar gave him during their duel, and after Lear has carried the lifeless Cordelia on stage, the report of Edmund's death prompts Albany to comment sternly to the nurse, "That's but a trifle here." Speaking that line with such clarity at that moment generates a laugh from the audience, whether intended or not. Nevertheless, it emphasizes Edmund's arc coming full circle, from a life that is not to be acknowledged to a death that is "but a trifle"—though he attains the titles of Earl of Gloucester and Duke of Cornwall and the love of two princesses along the way.

The heart and soul of this King Lear can be found in the hovel during the storm. On the fringe of the stage, among the trash that has gathered there, slouch homeless people, stockings obscuring their faces. One young woman carries a baby at her breast. These are the "naked wretches" with "houseless heads and unfed sides" the now-mad Lear notices for the first time in his life, and he suddenly sees a truth about the society he had recently ruled. "O, I have ta'en too little care of this!" he says. "Take physic, pomp; expose thyself to feel what wretches feel, that thou mayst shake the superflux to them, and show the heavens more just," whereupon he removes his cloak and places it around the young mother. Poor Tom is one of these naked wretches—in fact, his appearance scares even his fellows destitutes—and in a barely noticeable piece of stage business, after the blind Gloucester has given the disguised Edgar his purse to lead him to Dover, Edgar tosses it to one of the other homeless people. By losing his nobility, Edgar has become the most noble of all and, ironically, ends up inheriting the kingdom.

Eric Minton
August 20, 2015

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