CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
While Shakespeare & Company has grown from nothing in the way of resources and comfortably air conditioned theaters into a company housed in a spacious and ever expanding property, Ms. Packer (who is artistic director as well as director of the just opened Lear) and her multi-faceted colleagues (they act, direct and perform a multitude of other functions) continue to stick to productions that focus on the essence of a play and easy comprehension of its psychological nuances. That means small casts and minimal sets which make it possible to present several productions in repertory; to wit, the first King Lear in their twenty-five year history. Thirteen actors play all the roles on a bare stage with an occasional prop to transport us from King Lear's palace to the Earl of Gloucester's castle, to a tempestuous storm on the Heath, and to Dover. When not part of this tragedy of false values, misplaced trust and parent-child miscommunication a number of the key players can also be seen in the sunnier 1950s Much Ado About Nothing (CurtainUp Review) with which this cogent King Lear alternates through the end of August.
This season's reconfigured Founders Theater (the stage now thrust much deeper into the center section, and abutting it at either side with several rows of seats) is as suited to the tragic doings of these royals as the operetta like romantic misunderstandings of Much Ado's Sicilian lovers. While King Lear has its own look, anyone who's seen other Shakespeare plays at the Founders, will not only recognize company regulars, but certain stylistic trademarks such as extensive and highly energetic use of the aisles and the upstairs area and having at least one or two characters pop out of a manhole in the seemingly smooth stage floor. While Jonathan Epstein's Lear is hardly the stuff of the campy comedy that gets big laughs for him as Mayberry in Much Ado, don't be surprised to find yourself chuckling more than ocasionally.
With most people associating King Lear with the hair raising cruelty of the scene in which Gloucester's eyes are gouged out, and the howling wind accompanying the disheveled Lear's wandering on the Heath, the idea of laughter may sound forced and inappropriate but that's only because the play's drama tends to overwhelm the humor which is more a case of chuckles than uproarious belly laughs. The fact that Epstein, not an actor inclined towards understatement, plays Lear in a moderate key tends to bring out the wry humor in some of his words. While there are laugh-inducing touches throughout, most of them are courtesy of Kevin Coleman's Fool and John Douglas Thompson's overly ambitious, scheming Edmund. I should add that I could have done without some of Thompson's over the top non-verbal shenanigans which include his self-satisfied smirks and at one point, a triumphant somersault. Still Packer manages this somewhat jarring characterization without doing harm.
Under Ms. Packer's direction, the parallels between Lear's story and that of Gloucester (Johnny Lee Davenport), another misguided father, are easily grasped. Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Ariel Bock are the sisters who love neither their father or each other, with Aspenlieder shedding the nice girl image with which she has been associated with a vengeance. As Regan she not only zestfully joins Cornwall (Mark Saturno), her nasty consort, in beating and blinding the hapless Gloucester but in the aggressiveness of her involvement with the exploitative Edmund. Kristin Wold rounds out the sister act as Cordelia, the good but exiled youngest daughter. Crucial as this role is to the story, it's one, at least as played here, that makes its strongest impression when Lear holds her dead body in his arms.
Malcom Ingram, like Epstein, plays Kent with sympathetic lack of bombast. The same can't be said for Jason Asprey as Cordelia's counterpart, Gloucester's son Edgar. As Kent becomes Lear's loyal servant, Mel Cobb, as Oswald, shows that the bad guys (and girls) inspire equal devotion from their servants.
Kris Stone's scenic design dominated by a wooden, ribbon-like upstage curtain gives the production a sleek look that is well supported by Arthur Oliver's non-period specific costumes -- the all-white costumes of the British royals is a silent comment on the black thoughts going through the minds of those wearing them. The incidental music especially written for this production by composing fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center (the second such collaboration between the two organizations) is especially effective during the storm scene.
The early previews of this King Lear ran four hours. This running time has been trimmed -- but, instead of the three hours announced by Tina Packer in her opening night welcoming remarks, it still takes over three and a half hours from Lear's bad decision about dividing his kingdom to his and his daughters' demise. I could think of a few spots ripe for further trimming, but then Lear et al fulfill Packer's promise that "we're going to kick ass" -- and, as she summed up the running time dilemma, " You can't do eternity in less than three hours."
Review of a recent London King Lear
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