Dallas — Many critics, poets, and academics have long held that Shakespeare’s King Lear is a literary work of art meant only to be read, not seen. They believe that it’s too long, too lyrically complicated, and nearly impossible to stage with all of its tricky subplots and ultra-demanding roles. True, a focused reading of the entire play will reap rewards of understanding; however, this most relentless of the Bard’s tragedies is not merely a “closet play” and a skilled performance is quite necessary.
How fortunate then that we have a production helmed by Shakespeare Dallas Executive and Artistic Director Raphael Parry and starring the incomparable Fred Curchack as the eponymous regent.
Parry’s decision to let the language (judiciously edited) and his talented ensemble, including some incredible standouts, interpret and carry the play is apt. Helping in this endeavor is Donna Marquet’s spartan set dominated by standing banners and two long ramps, which highlights the action and allows Jen J. Madison’s intricate and colorful costumes of the English High Middle Ages setting to pop.
The sparseness of the stage coupled with the emphasis on the gloomy language add to the bleakness of Lear’s dark world of philosophical questions with no consoling answers. It is a deliberately pre-Christian, Nature-dominated milieu that is sick and morally corrupt with nowhere to turn but inward. We cannot trust our families or friends, and in Lear’s case, not even himself.
The plot turns on King Lear’s curious choice to retire and “shake all cares and business,” leaving his kingdom to his three daughters based on their public proclamation of love and fidelity. His two eldest daughters, Goneril (Joanna Schellenberg) and Regan (Nicole Berastequi) are “marble-hearted” vipers who are happy to flatter then leave their dad out in the cold (literally) after they get what they want. His youngest and dearest daughter, Cordelia (Kelsey Godfrey) refuses to play the game, and is pawned off without a dowry to the King of France (Alexander Ferguson).
Loyal advisor, the Earl of Kent (T.A. Taylor) suffers banishment for trying to tamp down Lear’s fires, and a subplot between the Earl of Gloucester (Steven Young) and his two sons, the legitimate Edgar (David Goodwin), and his bastard Edmund (Gregory Lush) round out the action.
One of the many beauties of Lear is that it is not afraid to revel in its harsh truths—without presenting any clear truth—while contemplating human destiny solely amidst human action. There is no ultimate spiritual redemption or deus ex machina that will save the day. The play is simultaneously horrifying, rewarding, and entertaining. The picnicking set at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre were on the edge of their lawn chairs and blankets for the nearly three hour traffic of the stage.
As good as Shakespeare’s play is—perhaps the greatest piece of Western art—it takes a deft director and group of actors up to the task. Young is maybe the most boisterous Gloucester one will ever see. His energy propels every scene he inhabits. Schellenberg and Berastequi’s pair of ungrateful daughters will make you love to hate them, although I would like to see more chemistry between them and Edmund.
Taylor imbues the dutiful Kent with loads of pathos, and Goodwin’s Edgar who becomes “Poor Tom” or “Old Tom the philosopher” takes on a character nearly as complex and tragic as Lear and shines doing it, and Lush as the “base” and “bastardly” Edgar is entirely suited for this suavely evil villain (that’s a compliment).
Maryam O. Baig plays Lear’s motley Fool as a colorful sprite who verges into Puck territory on occasion, but still provides a perfect light counterpart to Lear. The Fool represents what English literary critic G. Wilson Knight calls “a humour that treads the brink of tears.”
Finally, there are few superlatives that can cover Curchack’s performance as Lear. From the very moment he sets a toe on the stage, he captivates. His embodiment of the embittered “old” Lear is fascinating by how many different aspects of the king’s character he can cover in so many different ways. He is at equal times a brawling, passionate, sensitive, and brash man on the precipice (and eventually in the abyss) of old age and insanity.
Curchack infuses into his Lear elements of vaudeville, classical acting, and Japanese Noh techniques, notably in his deliberate and stylized movements. He is the old lion who chooses his fate and loses all, and we feel his pain right along with him. He is simply “every inch a king.” Just try keeping a dry eye when he delivers the famous “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” speech.
Sure, there are a few minor quibbles with the sound cutting in and out (a longtime SD bugaboo) and stage combat that is curiously stilted and projected, but I imagine they will work out these wrinkles soon enough.
Lear is apt to repeat the dominant theme of the play that “nothing can come of nothing”; however, a lot comes out of the seeming nothing of staging this “impossible” play, and that is most certainly something.
» King Lear continues through Saturday, Sept. 26 at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre at Tenison Park in Dallas; and then runs October 1-11 at Addison Circle Park