shakespeareances.comCaricature of Shakespeare




King Lear

The Magnitude of the Mundane

WSC Avant Bard, Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, Virginia
Monday, June 19, 2017, second row, middle section of 103-seat theater-in-the-round
Directed by Tom Prewitt

Lunch today was leftovers from a clear-out-the-refrigerator meal I concocted last night that I called "Italian Stir-Fry," with Italian products substituting for normal wok fare (e.g., garlic instead of ginger, olive oil instead of vegetable oil, balsamic vinegar instead of soy sauce). On the countertop sat the emptied bottle of Cabernet Franc from last night, another nice memory. Lunch came just after I'd posted my Timon of Athens review on I'm feeling good, my wife looked good when I dropped her off at work this morning, and we're excited about our upcoming trips: a vacation in New York, a baseball/Shakespeare sojourn through the Midwest, and a secret romantic getaway for my wife's birthday in the fall (I know where we're going; she doesn't). Life is great.

Lear in a white shirt, gray work pants, and a multi-color tapestry scarf with fringe around his shoulders; behind him the Fool in purple shirt, pink pants, gray vest, and blue hat talks, a finger held up; in the background, a servant in gray scarf sleeps
King Lear (Rick Foucheux) listens to his Fool (Christopher Henley) in the WSC Avant Bard production of William Shakespeare's King Lear. Below, (from left) Cornwall (Frank Britton), Regan (Charlene V. Smith), Goneril (Alyssa Sanders), and Oswald (Louis E. Davis) determine to abandon Lear during the storm. Photos by DJ Corey Photography, WSC Avant Bard.

Then it was back to my desk to write a review about William Shakespeare's King Lear. Perfect context, right? Sure, it's my favorite Shakespeare play, and WSC Avant Bard presents a generally fine version of it. But it is, nevertheless, King Lear, not the kind of play one should be dwelling on when life is great. Except, that is one of the points of the play that emerges in this production. Though the play opens with Lear's kingdom seemingly in a state of bliss, the fractures already exist, the rivalries are already percolating, and political uncertainty is already hanging over the proceedings that all lead to the coming catastrophe.

Watching and listening carefully, you will see these fissures in WSC Avant Bard Artistic and Executive Director Tom Prewitt's staging of the opening scene in the intimate in-the-round space of the Gunston Arts Center's theater in Arlington, Virginia. Shakespeare himself foretells the coming conflict with the play's first line as the Earl of Kent (Vince Eisenson) questions the Earl of Gloucester (Cam Magee, playing the role as a woman): "I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall." "It did always seem so to us," Gloucester replies, "but now in the division of the kingdom it appears not which of the dukes he values most." These are weighty sentiments: "division of the kingdom" and whom the king "values most." However, before this is all explained, Kent moves immediately to the presence of Gloucester's son, Edmund (Dylan Morrison Myers), who, we learn, was illegitimately conceived. This leads to sexual entendre jokes even as we get our first glimpse of the play's arch villain. Eisenson's Kent prolongs their handshake with a firm grip and stares piercingly into Edmund's face as he says "I must love you, and sue to know you better." We don't yet know how poignant a point Kent makes.

The rest of the court enters, parading around the outskirts of the stage, and though we don't know exactly which is the Duke of Albany and which the Duke of Cornwall, we see two guys and their wives, two of Lear's daughters, eyeing one another suspiciously. All pause as Gloucester announces, "The king is coming," and Lear (Rick Foucheux) enters with his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Kathryn Zoerb). This is a departure from the original quarto and First Folio texts, which tacks Gloucester's announcement onto the end of her conversation with Kent before Lear enters with all the rest. This slight textual alteration not only establishes Lear's authority but creates the psychological separation of Lear (and Cordelia) from the rest of the company and the gaps in perspectives—between assumptions and reality—that is the essence of this production.

Pomp is notably absent in Prewitt's staging. Jonathan Dahm Robertson's set evokes an American Plains Indians motif, a canvas-like shelter at the back of what could be a ceremonial circle and a hide-covered brick fire pit in the center. However, the costuming by Elizabeth Ennis looks more J. Crew cool than primitive, with eclectic touches in the two Dukes' tastes. Albany (Christian R. Gibbs) and Goneril (Alyssa Sanders) have a thing for classic Spanish fashions: she in a short jacket and blousy pants, he in a gold brocade dinner jacket and black pants with matador-like gilded waistband. Cornwall (Frank Britton) and Regan (Charlene V. Smith) dig red, she in a gothic dress with a black bustier, he in red satin smoking jacket and black leather pants. Zoerb’s Cordelia, on the other hand, goes for the simple-but-classy look of a cream-colored dress over tan leggings and stylish brown boots.

Sound Designer and Composer Justin Schmitz's soundtrack mostly comprises a constant wind and tolling bells at scene changes. The look juxtaposes comfortable living within a sense of desolation, an attitude running through the play. Otherwise, Prewitt does not layer on any extratextual conceptualization. Instead, he gathers an accomplished cast and lets them portray what Shakespeare provides them.

The casting centerpiece is Foucheux, an oft-awarded, D.C. theater fixture closing out his 35-year acting career by reuniting with Prewitt (who directed him in the title role of Woolly Mammoth’s Cooking with Elvis in 2003). His Lear is a performance worthy of an encore. He doesn't raise the rafters with his speeches (in fact, the thunder often drowns out his lines, at least where we were sitting) nor give Lear a larger-than-life, tyrannous bearing. Rather, Foucheux constrains his Lear into a portrayal of accessible humanity, instantly recognizable as an aging father, an elder politician, a man of fading authority who is past his testosterone prime.

Foucheux's Lear instigates the love contest of the opening scene as something of a joke (after all, he’s already drawn the map of division), and laughs all the while. But others who know his temperament can see what might evolve, especially Zoerb's Cordelia, speaking her asides, and Eisenson’s Kent, who watches warily as the pageant unfolds. When Cordelia refuses to go along with the charade, the vehemence in Lear’s “Nothing will come of nothing” stuns her—and perhaps it stuns Lear himself, even as his temper turns into an avalanche of wrath, senseless in its foment, destructive in its force. Soon after, when Kent departs upon his banishment for defending Cordelia, Foucheux’s Lear realizes how seriously off course he’s gone, but by that point he's intent on keeping his pride intact.

The ingratitude of his daughters comes as a shock to his system. He gave them all, he incredulously points out; "and in good time you gave it," Regan replies as a matter of fact. Goneril and Regan do not see their actions as ingratitude but merely common sense. Lear's age, they contend, is exacerbating a personality with which they’ve long been dealing. “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash,” Goneril says; “Then must we look to receive from his age, not alone the imperfections of long-engrafted condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness that infirm and choleric years bring with them.”

The first conflict between Goneril and Lear is particularly astute. Goneril takes the tone of a common-sense daughter reasoning with a father who doesn’t realize how old he is. “Come sir,” Sanders’ Goneril says, putting her hand on his shoulder, “I would you would make use of that good wisdom, whereof I know you are fraught; and put away these dispositions that of late transform you from what you rightly are.” It's the kind of conversation many of us have experienced as we become caretakers of our aging parents, whether we're trying to convince them to give up driving, give up their legal and financial independence, or give up dating that woman angling for the estate. I have a haunting feeling of seeing myself talking to my late father in Sanders’ performance here.

Because the main plot develops as so commonplace, intellectually and emotionally, in this production, Lear’s slide into insanity becomes a heartfelt tragedy. Meanwhile, the daughters’ increasing frustration with their father and their tightening grip on their self-interests seems only natural until it reaches cruel proportions with disturbing consequence. There go we but for the grace of, well, ourselves—we hope.

Several key readings bring myriad dimensions to the characters. Smith’s Regan is obviously hotly in love with her hot-headed husband (though he always lets her lead) and is genuinely distraught when he ends up fatally wounded in the course of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes; nevertheless, the first time she sees Edmund she locks onto him lustfully. Sanders’s Goneril has clearly come to disdain her dull marriage with Gibbs’ book-wielding Albany, and though he ultimately is not the milquetoast she describes, we can tell what’s amiss in her marriage when she aggressively seduces Edmund.

Eisenson’s Kent does something I don't recall seeing any Kent do in 18 previous productions I’ve witnessed: something so simple yet so informative. On the heath, when, in his mad raging at the storm Lear suddenly notes that the Fool is cold, Kent removes his own jacket and puts it around the Fool's shoulders. This illustrates the depth of Kent’s service to his king: he knows the full breadth of Lear’s perception—understanding both what it covers and what is beyond its scope—and attends to his emotional state as well as his physical being. From first to last, Eisenson keeps his Kent ever attuned to every detail in his environment even if it doesn't seem to concern Lear, from his piercing study of Edmund upon first meeting him to his querying concentration as he listens to Gloucester describe how her eldest son intended to kill her.

Kent’s counterpart in the realm of service, Goneril’s steward Oswald, also gets a wonderfully illustrative portrayal in the performance of Louis E. Davis. His Oswald is dutiful to the core, yet he shows a personality in his own right as he reacts to the actions of those he serves. He exhibits watchful concern over Goneril’s come-on to Edmund; he exhibits pleasurable incredulity after Regan fails to seduce him into revealing the message he’s carrying from Goneril to Edmund; he exhibits gumption, not only before the king (after Goneril instructed Oswald to stand up to Lear and his knights) but also with Kent when the latter berates him at Gloucester's castle; and he exhibits single-minded duty when he instructs the disguised Edgar, who had just fatally stabbed him defending the "proclaimed" traitor Gloucester, to get Goneril's letter to Edmund.

Zoerb also turns in a character-catapulting performance as Cordelia. As spunky as her father, she becomes royally pissed at Lear when he exaggerates her offenses in the opening scene, and she doesn't shrink from calling out her sisters, either. Demanding that Lear clarify for Burgundy (Davis) and France (Christopher Henley) that "It is no vicious blot, murder, or foulness, no unchaste action or dishonored step that hath deprived me of your grace and favor, but even for want of that for which I am richer: A still-soliciting eye," a phrase she directs at Regan, "and such a tongue that I'm glad I have not," pointing this phrase at Goneril. When she returns late in the play at the head of the French army she's as commanding a queen as Shakespeare ever created. All three daughters manifest their father's personality in different ways.

Another piece of keen insight comes with Henley's take on the King of France. In the casting of Henley, who is WSC Avant Bard's artistic director emeritus, France is not a young courtier as is Davis' Burgundy, and his obvious age brings out a subtext to this scene I've always sensed but have never seen expounded on stage. Including France as one of Cordelia's courtiers is obviously anachronistic (France didn't exist in the historic Lear's time), so Shakespeare was deliberate in choosing his own England's longtime rival for the part, especially in the way Lear tries to dissuade France from taking the disowned Cordelia. Is the French king as romantic as he sounds? Or does he have political motivation? Sure, Zoerb's Cordelia is everything France describes, but Henley's playing hints that France's primary motivation is not romance or even sex; it's putting one over on Lear. And Lear knows it, making great show of departing with Burgundy in great bonhomie.

Henley's greater contribution to the production is the Fool. Though wearing modern clothes (purple shirt, pink pants, gray-striped vest, and a beaten-up blue fedora adorned with a red feather), Henley presents the historic version of a court jester with a developmental disability or autism. Henley speaks his lines as if they are revelations, like commenting on thoughts flickering across the screen of his mind. He also is frightened of lightning, as each thunder clap has him cowering in Gloucester's comforting arms.

The Gloucester subplot does not resonate as fully as the main plot, in part because the two half brothers, Edgar (Sara Barker) and Edmond, are played to extremes. Barker's Edgar is a wimp (she kills Oswald and Edmund almost by accident), and though she is supremely antic in Edgar's disguise as Poor Tom, these antics of insanity don't serve to unify the hovel scenes with the senile Lear and the developmentally disabled Fool. Myers' Edmund maintains an intense rage, not only void of any subtlety but at times behaving as crazy mad as Poor Tom (perhaps Edmund influenced Edgar in his antics). The Cornwalls might appreciate such an all-out maniac, and perhaps Goneril is attracted to the contrast from her protocol-conforming husband, but mom should know better—Gloucester's falling for Edmund's plot is a hard sell in this production.

Cornwall in red jacket and black leather pants and Goneril in red dress with black bustier stand under one umbrella; Goneril in purple gray short jacket and blousy pants and Oswald in dark pants and shirt and gray vest stand under the other umbrella.I do appreciate the regendering of Gloucester as a woman, transferring Gloucester's meditations on parenthood from a father to a mother. We also hear Magee's Gloucester describe to Kent the "good sport at [Edmund's] making" from the woman's side, "whereupon I grew round-wombed and had indeed, sir, a son for my cradle ere I had a husband for my bed. Do you smell a fault?" "I cannot wish the fault undone, the issue of it being so proper," Kent replies with the obvious intent of casting no judgment on Gloucester's wilder days. Ah, but was that fault with Lear? The king's relationship with Gloucester has romantic overtones. She is capable of shushing Lear to patience, something no one else can do. Then, when the blinded Gloucester encounters the mad Lear, they dance, then kiss even as he acknowledge he knows who she is. Then he runs off, with Cordelia's soldiers in chase, leaving the sobbing Gloucester behind.

"The weight of this sad time we must obey," Edgar says, the first line of the play's final quatrain, which I've always held dear. Looking at that wine bottle on my kitchen counter, empty except for the memories it now holds, content after my lovely lunch, and ruminating on our upcoming travels and romantic interludes, I was suddenly struck with vaguely bothersome thoughts: about new neighbors that I will "sue to know better," about political tension in the air, about the possibility of a Lear in our midst (my wife? me?). It's the weight of these good times we also must obey.

Eric Minton
June 23, 2017

Comment: e-mail

Start a discussion in the Bardroom