On a dark set, only minimally embellished with Art Deco flair, men in tuxes and tails, and women in slinky gowns with trains sip from martini glasses while a jolly entertainer croons a jazz standard. So begins our experience as we find our seats and settle in for the dimming of the lights. This is King Lear, reimagined, by Park Square Theatre in the hands of director Peter Moore.
The theory is that this is a crime family in an unnamed American city. The parallels are clear enough: loyalty to the family is paramount; the godfather/king calls the shots; violence and betrayal beget more violence and betrayal. On the whole, I think the concept works.
Lear, King of Britain (Raye Birk) is old and decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters. But first, he requires a declaration of their love for him. This is his first mistake. Goneril (Jennifer Blagen) and Regan (Stacia Rice), the duplicitous daughters, are perfectly willing to say whatever he wants to hear and get as much as they can out of the deal. Cordelia, the youngest, played by Adelin Phelps, stands mute, apparently unable to express how she feels, or choosing not to. (Regardless of what the words say, and what you think you know about Lear, that’s what this production said to me.) The powerful “family” he controlled, and from which he abdicates, begins its descent into murder and mayhem, even as Lear himself unravels and succumbs to grief and madness.
Blegen and Rice are cunning siblings – much too attractive and used to privilege to share anything with anyone. The trick is fashioning two characters out of the one that Shakespeare seems to have written, which they managed to do quite believably. Dan Hopman as Gloucester’s older and legitimate son had warmth and empathy in the role, and Jim Lichtscheidl made an appropriately unattractive counterpart as Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund.
The Fool (Gary Briggle) appears in straw hat as a dapper vaudevillian and a slick foil to his volatile master, and I liked Ansa Akyea’s interesting take on his dual role as Kent and Kent-in-disguise.
The speeches were delivered skillfully, and sometimes magnificently, but they didn’t really talk to each other when it mattered most. People are killed on stage and quickly forgotten. Eventually someone dragged the body off. Many significant events seem anticipated, rather than experienced in the moment.
Notable exceptions: Stephen D’Ambrose as Gloucester and Hopman as Edgar (and, in disguise, “Poor Tom”) play the irony in their scenes with a light touch, gently connecting, then moving away, guiding the careful balance between expressing their love and preserving their own safety. Gloucester’s “suicide” is silly, but Hopman’s Edgar doesn’t allow him to feel that way. These two characters—and I would presume, these two actors —really connected.
But the role in this play is Lear and Birk is impressive. The underpinning of order in the world of the play is Lear’s absolute power. Even if you didn’t know the play, you can see what’s coming. However, as my companion put it, “I haven’t seen any conflict that warrants the activity.” We simply have to buy into Lear making such a decision, thereby snipping the thin thread that begins the unraveling.
In the first half of the play Birk’s Lear is arrogant, impetuous and cruel, but certainly not mad. There is no real sense of loss or estrangement from his two older daughters and their husbands because none of them seemed to connect on a personal level. This is a legitimate interpretation, certainly, but now where do you go? What will drive their passion and motivate the wanton violence in the rest of the play? It has to come from somewhere. The fury that was necessary to drive the sisters to such horrible vengeance seemed like cold cruelty and little else. King Lear is about dirty politics, that’s true, but the darkness in these families is far more compelling. What did he do to his girls?
By contrast, Lear’s reunion with Gloucester is touching, as it should be, because it is played as a deeply personal moment for the two of them. Gloucester has been dangerously foolish in his decisions, too, but D’Ambrose makes sure that we love him anyway. He was terrific.
The deeper Birk’s Lear descends into madness, the clearer his life becomes, and the more worthy of redemption. In this, Birk was in full control. Lear’s speech to Cordelia as they are led away to prison, was riveting in its clarity and pathos.
“Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”
And in the play’s last scene, cradling his precious Cordelia, Birk brought us full circle, in a chillingly real final moment.
King Lear plays through November 11. Recommended.