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THEATER REVIEW: ‘King Lear’

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Try as I might, I can’t work up much enthusiasm for the Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “King Lear.” It just didn’t make that big of an impact on me. Director Brian J. Sivesind has staged an earnest, fluid production, but the emotional oomph of the towering title character, and the accompanying bleakness of the human condition that is such a part of this classic tragedy, just didn’t come through strongly for me. The only emphatic reactions I had were to a few of the supporting performances — both positive and negative.

On the positive side, Adam Meredith’s Edmund — the illegitimate son who turns his father against his brother — is a sharp and cunning presence on stage. His bastard angst is palpable, and when he struts downstage as far as he can, right up to the front steps of the stage, just a few feet from the audience, he almost convinces us to root for him.

Strong, too, are Lear’s two sycophantic daughters, Goneril (an icy Erica Riggs) and Regan (an imposing Melissa Geston), whose machinations as the play progresses are intriguing. After flattering their aging father into giving them his kingdom in the opening scene, we watch as their dour colors emerge. A great moment is when they insist on Lear reducing the size of his own “train,” or household staff ,now that he’s stepped down from power — perhaps all the way down to nothing! The fluidity of that scene, and the sharp familial emotions on display, is a highlight.

I was also drawn to Stephen Torres’ restrained performance as the Duke of Albany, whose measured annoyance to his wife and his joyless involvement in the sordid plots and small-minded cruelties around him serves as an interesting counterbalance to all the pettiness on display. Mike Peterson also has some intriguing moments as Kent, the Lear loyalist, whose stolid support of his former boss might be hard to understand but admirable nonetheless.

On the negative side — and I know that I’m going to come down on the opposite side of many audience members — I actively disliked Gabriela Lawson’s turn as the Fool, who serves as the sort of narrator/commenter/truthful sidekick. It isn’t the gender switch that bothers me. (The role is usually played by a man.) Lawson’s choreographed performance, which stretches at times into the gymnastic, comes across as stilted. Decked out in vivid, clownlike colors (Kat Clowes’ costume design for the character seems too impish, too modern, for the ancient setting), Lawson spends much of the time twirling about the stage while offering her commentary. At times it’s like watching a multitasking cheerleader executing a routine. Lost are the intimate, razor-sharp insights of the Fool. Lawson always has been a great talent on the Woodward stage, but this time she comes across as pre-packaged, even automatic.

As for the title role, Hal Bolen does have some nice moments — in his “blow winds” speech, say, as he’s standing on the second level of Bruce Robinson’s effective set against a backdrop of trees blowing in the breeze — but overall I never bought him as a despondent, doddering (but still fierce) old man.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘King Lear’"

John L. B. Smith says:

This was a VERY ENJOYABLE Shakespearean tragedy.

I concur in Donald’s compliments to several of the actors, and heartily applaud Hal Bolen’s presentation of King Lear’s full range of emotions (from bad to worse !). Gabby Larson’s
Fool was also excellent; I saw Henry VIII and Hamlet at London’s Globe Theater, and in both instances they had a lot of energetic humor. Debora Bolen’s costumes were exquisite for these ancient times (without being overdone) as was Chris Campbell’s Stonehenge set. As Shakespeare goes, the actors were easy to understand, the play was easy to follow and it moved along quickly. A very pleasant evening in a serene venue.

Debora Bolen says:

Re Costumes – Thanks to commenter John L.B. Smith for the kudos on the costumes – though I would love to take credit for them, in fact I had no input whatsoever in this regard (an innocent mistake on Mr. Smith’s part since I’ve costumed WSF productions in the past).

The Costumer for “Lear” is the talented Kat Clowes, and, I heartily agree the costumes were wonderful and perfect for the period – they subtly add so very much to the production.

As for Mr. Munro’s comment on costuming for the “Fool” – Donald does have a point in this regard, however, Ms. Clowes is quite knowledgeable regarding period-correct costuming. Based on my own professional experience, I suspect the decision on costuming for the “Fool” was made in conjunction with multiple artistic sentiments, to include approval (or at the express direction) of the Director, and possibly also the artistic staff’s consensus regarding maximum audience recognition and appreciation of this particular character.

Anne Christensen says:

I saw ‘King Lear’ the first week with my Mother. We both thought that the ‘Fool’ (Gabriela Lawson) was fantastic. We liked the staging and the setting of the cast. We both thought Hal Bolen fit the part of King Lear. It is a hard job to portray a man who goes crazy and he was fitting that character very well.

All the sisters including Cordelia (Catherine Evangelho) were very convincing.

We actually thought all the actors were great, so we are going to see ‘King Lear’ again in the coming weeks.

Great show!