Deconstruction is supposed to add insight and clarity to a known classical text, but Eric Tucker’s breakdown of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at Bristol Riverside Theater fosters more chaos and self-indulgence than it does enlightenment.
It’s toying for toying’s sake, and Tucker’s toying robs “Lear” of any point or purpose.
A Shakespearean work is more than a story. It has magnitude. It has poetry. It shows the great awareness about humans and their behavior that causes me to place Shakespeare among the first and most perceptive of psychologists.
Tucker’s “Lear sprawls. Only rarely does it focus enough to settle into a scene or a concept. It’s too busy trying to impress and shock.
It does neither because among the elements Tucker discarded in paring “King Lear” to today’s fashionable 90 minutes is the play. He hasn’t preserved enough to maintain “Lear’s” texture or to explain how one sequence moves to the next. Tucker deems it unimportant to reveal how the Duke of Gloucester loses his eyes or to let his audience know the young man posing as the mad waif, Poor Tom, is Gloucester’s son, Edgar. If one doesn’t know “Lear” going in, one will be lost by the third scene. It’s almost an act of nerve to call the work on the Bristol stage “King Lear.”
Tucker explains what he’s attempting. In program notes, he says he is showing Shakespeare’s play from Lear’s point of view. Any scene that doesn’t include Lear is excised because the king cannot see it and, therefore, have no reaction to it.
As a challenge, the idea is interesting. In execution, it’s a mess, all excess and no substance.
Tucker and his designer opt for a modern, industrial design. Even the music by Bradlee Ward and Dawson Goodwrench is fatuous techno crap that purports more than it delivers.
Sometimes, amid the calculated mayhem, a speech or exchange between characters registers and shows that Tucker’s cast is capable of doing “Lear” if given the chance. Alas, these moments are oases in a vast theatrical desert that bores and disappoints more than anything.
Tucker begins his adaptation by taking a late scene, the play’s most poignant and tragic, and using it as a prelude for what precedes it.
In a more careful production, the move could be daringly interestingly, foreshadowing what Lear will become before we see how he arrives there.
At Bristol this opening sequence is just the start of muddle. It lacks definition. Like most of Tucker’s production, it rattles on without taking the time or balance to give itself weight. The scene seems to come from nowhere and remain a void. Neither Tucker nor his cast are engaging in a way that makes you want to see more or that makes his juxtaposition poignant.
Voices are part of the problem. Zuzanna Szadkowski, who plays Lear, will reveal a rich, affecting tone in the sequence when Lear ruefully realizes he is going mad, but in the opening scene, the tones all around are tinny and plebeian. There’s no majesty of language, let alone person. Instead of establishing a baseline, Tucker and company set their play adrift. What good is a tragedy if nothing is done to make you feel anything? How can you pity a character who never emerges, as pitiable or anything else?
Tucker’s “Lear” is not crisply spoken, Chunks of it go by at a mumbled quick pace that barely lets someone who can quote “Lear” keep up with the text let alone respond to it.
By the time Szadkowski finds her eloquence, it’s too late. The production has outworn patience. Recognition and appreciation of a solid passage is possible. Becoming involved in this “Lear” no longer is.
The briskness of the production doesn’t help. Information is given baldly. There’s no grace or cadence to its presentation. In early scenes, Szadowski comes off as so brusque and unrefined, you don’t know whether you’re watching “King Lear” or an episode of “Roseanne” or “Mom.”
The shame of throwing the play on stage instead of grooming is it sabotages some of Tucker’s better ideas, ones that are notably different and illuminate “Lear” a little.
Most admirable of these is one in which Lear and his retinue of 100 are installed at his daughter Goneril’s castle in keeping with the agreement made when Lear divested his kingdom, giving equal parts to Goneril and her sister, Regan. Tucker lets you see what Goneril may have to complain about. Lear and his troops are loud, demanding, and violent. The scene makes you wonder if father or daughter is right.
It’s also the scene that made me think of Szadkowski as Roseanne.
Tucker has cast all women in his production. Trendy as that may be, the choice makes no difference. This “Lear” would be as untidy no matter the gender of its players.
Szadkowski has enough strong scenes to show her mettle even if she never emerges as a stirring Lear. Therese Barbato, as Cordelia and the Fool, and Stefani Kuo, as Kent, also provide some fine moments.
The surprise here is Eric Tucker, who has done some wonderful, intelligent work adapting plays to smaller time frames and minimal casts. His Bedlam Theatre production of “Hamlet” at McCarter was a highlight of its season. It never seemed as slapdash or ill-considered as this “Lear” is.
Lisa Zinni’s costumes fit well with Tucker’s concept and added wit to the occasion. Jason Simms’ set functioned well and may have been more impressive in a better effort.
King Lear, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 16. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. $43 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.