Considering what is going on now in this world of ours, it is no wonder that “King Lear” is being given more attention than ever. For as Bonnie J. Monte, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and director of the current production, states in her program notes, “It is about a world completely out of balance, awash in chaos, and leaderless.” It is the right time for the politically and artistically progressive Monte to put her stamp on this classic.
Dramatically exposed madness not only makes for good theater but makes analysts of its observers. Objectified madness reigns in art. The diva who conquers the operatically expressed madness of Lucia di Lammermoor or the prima ballerina who envelopes the danced madness of Giselle may, indeed, enable a gifted performing artist to use that character’s madness as a propellant. But it remains (my belief) for the actor, with his spoken words, to bring the abysmal darkness and impenetrable and mysterious depths of the mind to us in the most accessible terms. And this is what makes Daniel Davis’ portrayal so splendid, resonant, emotionally real, and realized.
But, does anyone ever think to consider King Lear from the daughters’ point of view? Consider this: You have just been given a kingdom to rule by your father the king, who is retiring not a minute too soon. You have no sooner moved into your new digs and your father decides he wants to come and stay for a month, first with you and then off to stay for a month with your sister, who got the other half of the kingdom. Your old father arrives, not by himself with a valet, but with his full entourage and army. You haven’t even had time to hang the new drapes and hire the kitchen help and here he is at the front door expecting you to welcome him and his court for a prolonged stay. Ungrateful of you perhaps, but it sure is enough to get you to conspire with your sister to take charge and keep the king, already plagued with advanced senility, in tow.
There is no denying that filial ingratitude plays a large part in “King Lear” but as produced by Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, most of our attention will be on the extraordinarily fine performance of Davis in the title role. However, he is surrounded by an impressive troupe of supporting players and Monte’s clearly focused and unfussy staging. Davis has a lock on the mentally deteriorating king that won’t let us take our eyes off of him. The obligatory white hair and beard cannot hide or compromise the utter despair and the abject disappointment he feels in those who professed to love him.
Monte’s exciting and effective staging of this bi-level tragic tale of misjudging a person’s character and royal deception in pre-Christian Britain is enhanced by a production that employs a visually stunning, inventively constructed unit set of a craggy mountain, a cave, and landscape, the work of designer Marion Williams. The set also works to evoke the interiors of various castles, battlefields, and other locations without much effort. Steven Rosen’s lighting design adds considerable scope to the atmospherics, especially in the famed storm scene. Also impressive is the percussive sound score/ design by Karin Graybash.
The themes of old age and the different relationships of each child to his/her parent, in both the main and sub-plots, brings universal timelessness to each new generation of viewers. Briefly, the story details King Lear’s misapprehension of his one daughter’s devotion, causing him to divide his kingdom between the remaining two daughters, who have feigned their love. The resulting web of deception by the wicked daughters to strip their father of all power, and at the same time involve and seduce Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester (who has the similar function in the sub-plot of deceiving his father by denouncing his brother Edgar as a traitor), results in a downward spiral of devastating proportions.
The majestic sweep of the poetry is hardly surpassed in all of Shakespeare. The fight scenes are vividly addressed by Rick Sordelet. Despite Lear’s unstable mental state and his sheer physical deterioration as a factor, Davis creates an image of him that also expresses Lear’s valiant grandeur amid glimmers of senile foolishness. The many dimensions of reality and insanity seem hardly a breath away from Davis’s awareness. His body seems burdened if not harassed by his seedy garments, Davis is, indeed, heartbreaking for being “more sinned against than sinning.” He also sustains his heartbreak, as he carries (a feat not always attempted) Cordelia’s dead body on stage over his shoulder.
As the she-tiger, Goneril, Kristie Dale Sanders pays due homage to conspicuous contempt. As the second daughter, Regan, Victoria Mack unravels her mischief with despicable conscientiousness. Of course, she is blonde, young, and beautiful but Erin Partin has also found the key to unlock the uncomplicated affection of her father by third daughter Cordelia. Considering the touch of innocently misguided honesty in response to her father’s loaded question, Partin gives Cordelia an air of nicely conceived credibility. Kevin Isola, as Edgar, gains our empathy not only for having to withstand having his dirt-smeared body protected by a loin cloth, but also for the frenetic and frenzied delivery of his lines.
As his conniving false brother, Edmund, Marcus Dean Fuller gives a convincing and charismatic performance. Ames Adamson is a sturdy Earl of Kent and Seamus Mulcahy impressively takes no back seat in addressing the impish doings and wise discourse of Lear’s faithful fool. The Earl of Gloucester gets a wonderful interpreter in Edmund Genest, who appears to understand the role to the depths of its unreasonableness. It is good to report that all the poetry is heard with an understanding of its meter. Not something to be taken for granted. This is a “King Lear” that can be commended to all those who want to experience a production that forcefully and fearlessly compliments Shakespeare at his peak.
— Simon Saltzman
“King Lear,” through Sunday, July 27, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue in Madison. $38 to $53. 973-408-5600.