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.