King Lear: a grandly produced disappointment

At the Guthrie, through April 2

Nathaniel Fuller and Stephen Yoakam in King Lear. Both photos by T Charles Erickson.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is a dense tapestry of a play. Themes of loyalty, insanity, blindness, compassion and even base nature are all explored. Every director must choose what to emphasize and what to allow to pass without development. Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj’s production of King Lear stresses the play’s dark comedy and senseless physical abuse.

Cordelia (Kim Wong)’s very first lines are cut from the production. We miss her aside when she questions what to say to her father who is baiting his three daughters into giving him outlandish praise in return for a third of his kingdom. If Cordelia tells her father her real feelings, that she loves him like a father, no more and no less, then she will certainly loose out. That director Joseph Haj cuts this moment of introspection is an indication of what’s to come over the next three hours.

There are insightful performances in the show that deserve to be celebrated. Armin Shimerman is an ideal Fool. He mounts a table and waves his bowler hat to speak truth to the once powerful Lear. Though he looks for all the world like a leprechaun in striped pants and a cabbage rose boutonniere, Shimerman has great command of the language and gives the play an artful performance. Likewise, J.C. Cutler has a magnetic presence on stage. He puts a good deal of veracity into his portrait as the ever-loyal Kent who sticks with mad old Lear to the very end.

Stephen Yoakam and Nathaniel Fuller perform the demanding lead role on alternating nights. Their Lear is driven by a mean streak almost to the very end. Theirs is a hell-on-wheels performance, more demon than human. Fuller’s Lear may be better in the final four or five scenes but other than that their respective opening night performances were very much the same.

Some choices in this production are just plain mystifying. Jason Rojas as the normally sympathetic Edgar is a drunk. And gentle Gloucester (James A. Williams) is a tedious dupe. When Edgar disguises himself as “Poor Tom,” to avoid being executed, he lacks poignancy or perception and continues to play his lines as if he just left the bar.

Lear’s daughters, Goneril (Kate Nowlin), Regan (Sun Mee Chomet) and Cordelia all look spectacular on stage. Their costumes are nothing short of gorgeous but they struggle with Shakespeare’s verse, adding little vocal variety. It is sad to say but Charity Jones, as a French soldier, has more conviction in the closing scenes of the play than Wong’s Cordelia whose stiff monotone wears away a listener’s empathy.

Over the years, I think audiences have gotten used to the Guthrie’s habit of presenting Shakespeare with broad strokes. In this play, Goneril points to her head when she says “head” and to her mouth when she refers to her husband’s mouth. Even Lear, turned out by his ungrateful daughters, points to his heart so we know he is referring to his feelings. Granted, this is one way to do Shakespeare. What’s lost in productions like this is any revelation of inner turmoil or motivations.

In difficult times a tragedy that centers on political upheaval and personal scheming can remind us that we have gotten through rough periods before but the Guthrie’s King Lear is a bitter antidote. We lose so much in the telling that we are in danger of being de-humanized watching it. If only this production could see the world “feelingly,” as Gloucester says, we might have some balm.

4 comments for “King Lear: a grandly produced disappointment

  1. Brian Dozier
    April 9, 2017 at 8:07 pm

    I liked the show and don’t even like Shakespeare. Much of it is because of Armin Shimmerman, aka Quark. He was a nice surprise as I didn’t realize he was in the show until the people behind me started talking about him minutes before the show started. I’m left to wonder if I would have recognized him had I wasn’t given the heads up beforehand. Live long and prosper.

  2. Brian Dozier
    April 3, 2017 at 11:08 pm

    I loved Nat Fuller. And JC Cutler as Kent. Both give majestic performances. Edgar was played by someone else on the last night of the show. He played the role well in a manical drunken state. James Williams was superb. Excellent acting. Also, Quark was in the show too! I didn’t realize Admin was in the show until the people behind me started talking about him. I lost the experience of surprise to see him on stage not knowing he was in the show. But I will see him in Vegas this August.

  3. Marilee Johnson
    March 28, 2017 at 11:05 pm

    It was almost impossible to understand what the actors were saying because the set acted as a cavernous two story “echo chamber”. Having never seen or read “King Lear” and because I could not understand the dialog meant that I lost any hope of knowing the motivation for all the violence that ensued. I was not the only audience member having this problem. I heard several others comment on being unable to sort out the “garbled” speeches. It seemed to be the fault of the stage set and not the actors.

  4. Mari Wittenbreer
    February 21, 2017 at 11:08 am


    If you are longing to see a grandly produced, finely acted work about a murderous slide into insanity go see the National Theatre’s AMADEUS at it either St Anthony Main’s Film Society or Edina Cinema.The production is genius. Lucian Msamati’s portrayal of Salieri is a performance to cherish. Adam Gillan as Mozart may grate on your nerves in the first act but he gets better. By all means stay for the whole show.

    As Lear says, “Reason not the need” –until you experience for yourself.

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