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.

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