As far as staging, Lear has been presented in all manner of forms, from contemporary dress to a nursing home to Sci-fi to Kurosawa’s cinematic Sumarai adaption, Ran [Japanese for chaos].
The fact that for almost two centuries a highly altered, stripped down version was performed has led to the permission of considerable, and unusual latitude in terms of ensemble size and adaptation once productions returned to Shakespeare’s original. The opening up of the play to radical staging and interpretations is also enabled by the fact that Lear works beautifully even if completely stripped down to the most minimal of stagings, which means that one could also do almost anything with it.
The superb costume design by Leanna Schwartz of the current Rubicon version features references to Celtic sources, which is an effective, interesting, and fine reference to the fact that the story of a King Lier that Shakespeare drew from dates from the time when the British Isles were primarily Celtic, thus pre King Arthur. Though this means their swords were too long, as long swords were a feature of later Norse and Anglo-Saxon conquerors, as the Arthurian legend itself is also a legend, in part, about a time when the Celtic presence was being usurped [the Celtic Druids being represented by Merlin]. Thus Lear comes to us from the very depths of a layer of legendary past for the English-speaking world before English existed.
This also shows how much the story of Lear is timeless and has been interpreted as such during the last century and a half. Even today, audiences still might find some relevance in the story of a narcissistic, misguided head of state with a huge ego who destroys those close to him, gets rid of anyone questioning his authority, has a reign that lurches from one crisis to the next, on the way neglecting the disenfranchised, hurting many good people, while plunging his country into destructive, unproductive polarization and civil strife: in Lear’s case, outright civil war.
Rubicon’s Lear is directed by James O’Neal, one of the company’s founders and longtime Artistic Director. Thus the beauty of this production is going to see what our local company can do with such an opportunity. The strength of this play is O’Neal’s direction and the fact that there is a tremendous amount of talent involved with this production.
We get particularly good, noteworthy Shakespearean acting with Sylvie Davidson’s Cordelia, Joseph Fuqua’s Cornwall, and Jason McBeth’s Edgar. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper gives us a strong, believable, clearly delineated Edmund and it is always good to have a strong vilian in Lear. Joel Bryant delivers a superb Kent while Louis Lotorto gives us a fantastically good Fool. The rest of the leads are quite strong and the ensemble work solid-- a tribute to the director as well as the actors as this is not easy to do in Lear, which is more of a sprawl of a script than a tight ensemble work. Lear is famous for its range, psychic potency, timelessness, and depth; not its tightness, or lack thereof.
There is a considerable ensemble crew that is well managed. I should note that a long-standing local actor, Tom Mueller, does some of his best work here. The company notes say that this ensemble crew is to represent the marginalized masses of Lear’s kingdom. This does not read. Much of the time they don’t even read as people, but almost like spirits or presences [which would be a valid way to go about doing Lear, so this is not a problem]. This aspect is reinforced by one of the most remarkable passages in this production when the ensemble becomes the soundtrack, making the rain sounds during the storm. This is an especially magical passage when the rain starts. Unfortunately it sort of goes off the rails when the storm crescendos and peaks becoming so much noise. Maybe better to sustain the subtlety; it would be totally in line with the script.
Having such a strong Kent and Fool one would think would set up the famous passages covering Lear’s breakdown in the presence of Kent and the Fool, but somehow this does not come off as strongly as expected. Part of it is how Lotorto’s fabulously good opening--portraying a cocky, independently-minded fool--is compromised somewhat by an inexplicable and inadequately motivated shift to much too obsequious a Fool who gives far too much deference to his king as Lear begins to break down. The trio of Lear-Fool-Kent is usually much stronger if the Fool and Kent are played as standing off more, creating more distance between themselves and the degenerating King. It’s better when the Fool does not give in entirely to his fears, but rather, maintains more distance, more ambiguity, along with Kent, which has the tendency to sustain a higher level of tension in how the audience will read Lear’s descent into darkness. This creates a very different, deeper, more nuanced dynamic that carries throughout the key “insane” sections. This in turn gives more room for dramatic developement and sets up the inclusion of Edgar, a sane royal pretending to be an insane beggar giving counsel to an ever more unbalanced king. There lies the magic of Lear.
The other way to do it, with a deferring Fool who collapses into his fear, requires a much stronger Lear to pull off. One cannot expect a James Earl Jones, John Gielgud, or Laurence Olivier [with Alec Guinness for his Fool!] for our local production.
Rubicon’s staging is appropriately innovative, and in many ways quite good, though it seems cumbersome at times with much ado to too little effect. But I have to appreciate the attempt to take things outside of the usual and it is an interesting set-up that works and enables all the scene changes. This is good, as a production of Lear needs to sustain a certain pace. Probably the most common flaw with Lear productions is the pacing. The play is already somewhat longer than most contemporary productions so if a production of Lear starts to lag, it can really wear on an audience [one of the reasons abbreviated versions have historically been so popular].
The wrong way to push the pace in Lear is to push the speed of the delivery of the lines. Shakespeare is already difficult to do with the required degree of naturalism, and if actors are encouraged to push the pace of their delivery of lines, it can create its own problems. It is important that actors deliver Shakespeare as if it is a language that they actually understand. The trap is to hear lines that sound as if they are memorized and spoken by people who no longer feel and understand the language itself.
There are passages in most Shakespeare plays -- and more than a few in Lear-- where every line drips with meaning. All Shakespearean actors know of recordings of famous actors doing these passages with great import and power. However, not every line in Shakespeare is of equal import, in fact, most are not. If actors start delivering every line like that, as if every line has profound import, with great power and speed, the overall presentation eventually suffers. The play starts sounding memorized, unnatural, even bombastic, spoken by actors who no longer feel what they are saying, or even understand the language they are spouting.
If, for example, Lear starts off conducting his initial proceedings of state at the highest pitches of Shakespearean delivery, there isn’t much of any place to go by the time he gets to his real drama, at the height of his delirious ravings. Lear also needs to come down sufficiently to play the final “recognition” of his long-suffering youngest daughter, Cordelia--a passage where the greatest acting brings tears to the house, but, if overdone, comes off as so much self-indulgent bombast from a Lear we no longer care about. Or perhaps playing it this way is a means of foreshadowing what we will finally feel for our present ruler when he finally meets his fate.
"The Rubicon Theatre presentation of King Lear is half of a rare, spectacular local double bill of innovative productions of major Shakespeare plays, complementing the Ojai Theatre Center's production of Macbeth, running through 8 April. Go to www.ojaiact.org for Macbeth information and ticketing."
Directed by James O’Neal
Starring Meghan Andrews, George Ball, Joel Bryant, Leah Dalrymple, Sylvie Davidson, Dillon Francis, Joseph Fuqua, Caleb Kneip, Seryozha La Porte, Louis A. Lotorto, Jason McBeth, George McDaniel, Zachary Macia, Michael Matthys, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Sally Mueller, Tom Mueller, Beverly Ward, Trevor Wheetman, Samantha Wingers
Thomas Giamario, set and lighting design, Dave Mickey, sound design, T. Theresa Scarano, props and set dressinhg, Leanna Schwartz, costume designh, Dillon Francis, fight choreography, Jon Stover, production coordination, Erica Christensen, production stage management
Playing through 1 April 2018
Call 805.667.2900 or online at rubicontheatre.org for ticketing, reservations and further information.