Review: ‘King Lear’ at California Shakespeare Theater (***)

by Charles Kruger
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Anthony Heald as the mad King Lear at California Shakespeare Theater. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Anthony Heald as the mad King Lear at California Shakespeare Theater. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Many consider the stormy “King Lear” to be the greatest of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Certainly, that can be argued, although deciding amongst works of genius is something of a Fool’s errand.

Speaking of Fools, it may well be that King Lear is the greatest of Shakespeare’s many fools — a kingly one, driven to madness by his own folly, his aging mind, perhaps a  touch of dementia, a proud, foolish, mad, abusive old man who is, in the end, as he himself realizes, “more sinned against than sinning.”

Lear is a play rich in character, and every one of them is living at the extremes of their lives, afflicted by madness, blindness, cold, suffering, hatred, betrayal —a cast of Jobs, they are. Some respond with cruelty, some with love, some with insanity, some with compassion, and the King himself with all of that.

In one of the most famous scenes in all of  literature, the King’s stormy emotional state is matched by a wild storm of nature as Lear is abandoned to the cruel and wild night and howls at the very winds in his rage.

It is  an astonishingly big play, and makes astonishingly big demands on its actors. In a myriad of ways, the company at California Shakespeare Theater rises to the challenge. First, let me mention Daniel Ostling’s excellent scenic design, which features a large cage in which each of the characters is variously impounded. They are all prisoners in one way or another: of each other, of the time, of their own passions and limitations, of fate. The box or cage also serves to very effectively differentiate indoors and outdoors — a very important distinction in Lear where being exiled from the comforts of hearth and home and security are key themes. In the famous storm scene, Lear climbs to the top of this cage which breaks apart and spins as if Lear has been lifted by a tornado and spun through the sky. It is very effective.

This is a very operatic Lear, which is both its strength and its weakness. Each of the actors is superb, and the great speeches are presented as marvelous arias. The language is sparkingly clear and easy to follow, the emotions appropriately outsized. But this aria-like approach is also a serious flaw in the production. For most scenes, the actors seem each to be performing in a vaccum, rather than relating deeply to one another. The result is strangely emotionless for such an emotion-laden play, and the audience may be left impressed but relatively unmoved.

There are some exceptional moments, though. Cordelia’s adolescent awakening to adult realities in the very first scene is marvelously delineated by Kjerstine Rose Anderson. It is quite startling to watch the emotional distance she travails in this short scene, making a strong enough impact to last until the character reappears at the very end of the play. Her second performance as the Fool is less successful, perhaps not sufficiently differentiated from Cordelia. Dan Clegg does stand out work as the bastard Edmund, full of delicious villainy and evil, seductive charm. Also worth remarking upon is Aldo Billingslea’s Earl of Kent, especially as he disguises himself as a commoner, to serve his King even after having been sent into exile.

As Lear, Anthony Heald has the requisite size and emotional range to compass the part. He is at his best alone on stage, raging at the storm, but seems oddly disconnected from his fellow actors, as mentioned previously.

Overall, this Lear is satisfying and correct, accessible and intelligent, full of well-crafted moments, but lacking some emotional flow amongst the actors. It is a fine evening of theatre, but does not deliver the catharsis which should occur in a fully successful production. In summary: fine, but flawed.

“King Lear” plays at the Bruns Amphitheatre through October 11. For further information, click here.

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“King Lear” by William Shakespeare, produced by California Shakespeare Theatre. Director: Amanda Dehnert. Scenic Designer: Daniel Ostling. Costume Designer: Melissa Torchia. Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind. Sound Design/Composition: Joshua Horvath. Resident Fight Director: Dave Maier. 

Cast:

King Lear: Anthony Heald. Goneril: Arwen Anderson. Regan: El Beh. Cordelia: Kjerstine Rose Anderson. Kent: Aldo Billingslea. Albany: Sam Misner. Cornwall: Craig Marker. France: Patrick Alparone. Gloucester: Charles Shaw Robinson. Edgar: Rafael Jordan. Edmund: Dan Clegg. Oswald: Patrick Alparone. Curan: Sam Misner. A Doctor: Craig Marker. Various Knights and Attendants: The Company.

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