King Lear (Bo Johnson) gnashes his last words in anguish clinging to his dearest treasure, lost within his own mind. Life’s seasons delivered him one too many harsh political maelstroms, one too few kindred summer swoons, his will worn away. The life of a King.
We see him tangled, a heap strewn across the overgrowth of English hollows at Dover, symbolized by the gnarled trellis set pieces’ sturdy appendages, jutting in all directions, like a cruel wooden barricade dividing sides in a great war. A motley band of Lear’s devoted few, in a reverent moment, watch him fade away, but how did he meet his fate?
Daughter’s of the Lust
Veterans in the Alchemist’s ensemble, Anna Figlesthaler (Regan) and Libby Amato (Goneril) fittingly stand in leading roles as King Lear’s daughters, weaving their wiles around the players, their father the King finding no refuge in his begotten brood.
We get hints of Regan and Goneril’s perilous machinations in the open sequence, as the Duke of Cornwall (Jason Will) receives Regan’s dowry, and the Duke of Albany (Ken Williams) Goneril’s. Beneath the cover of ample doting, required to receive their father’s favor in tandem with the venerable nature of their suitors, the daughters’ obedience claims virtue although something lurks amiss.
Regan and Goneril’s righteously indignant sister, Cordelia (Grace DeWolfe), intervenes in France’s (Mack Folkert) prize, refusing to heave into words her gratitude for her father. Chastised, yet unyielding in her countenance, Cordelia accepts the wrath of her father, the King, his tongue and lips seething with venom expectant of a monitor lizard; She henceforth disowned.
King Lear’s rage blindly strikes his loyalist man Kent (Dylan Bolin), sending him from court in disgrace for questioning his highness’s judgement. King Lear filled with pride cannot see his flattering daughters conspire to usurp his authority as King. Few fetters remain of Lear’s royal fold after the opening scenes, the King has climbed atop his wall.
Taking less prominent roles, Artistic Directors Aaron Kopec and Erica Case handed the keys, of the Oldsmobile 442 that the Alchemist Theater is, over to Leda Hoffman. Hoffman cut her teeth directing as an intern with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. She goosed the Alchemist’s throttle plenty, driving King Lear into an exceptional production, delivering pace, atmosphere, suspense and affect, taking the crowd on a sidewinding joy ride without a wreck.
Hoffman’s production hugged the corners of the King Lear text, erring on the side of a traditional stage translation. The technical aspects of the players’ book-work and adherence to Hoffman’s vision rang through the audience’s response to punchy delivery of the script, which nailed Shakespeare’s wit meter after meter. Dramaturg Fly Steffens and text coaches Mark Corkins and Marcy Kearns deserve a nod for adding permeability to the impenetrable quality that Shakespeare’s rhetoric can pose for the layperson, their knack seen through the actors methods.
Looks to Percieve
The A.V. direction mimicked the overall polished manner of the production, wielding the power of an upgraded lighting system. To the credit of Stage Manger Erin Eggers and Sound/Music Designer Erin Paige, the overlay of cues on the players performances draped well. All elements of King Lear’s blocking added to the production’s readability, with hands lent from an extensive support crew including Mallory Metoxen (Assistant Director), Sydonia Lucchesi (Assistant Stage Manager), and Christopher Elst (Violence Design).
Visually, the costume design pressed by the fingertips of Caitlin Lux and Rachel Stenman tied the production neatly to the set design and stage performance. Without being distracting, medieval period looks infused with modern sensibilities kept the players in that magical place provided by Shakespeare’s literary settings.
The ensemble’s footwear captured the spotlight, as rugged leather riding boots signified the station of Albany, Cornwall, Edmund, Edgar and Oswalt (Tim Palecek) in particular, complimenting their English hunting field vests and durable breeches. France’s dandiness clung to his thigh-high cream colored equestrian boots, to match his two-tone white and pale blue admiral jacket with frilled epaulets.
Goneril and Regan, fit with versatile and well-tailored mini-one piece pleated dresses, exuded run way appeal enhancing their perceived ability to impress their privileges upon their subjects. Cordelia elegantly wore a chaste white gown through the hell and rising troubled waters of Dover.
Beneath the Velvet
The plotting and scheming in King Lear has few spectators, and a sporting chap Edmund (Matt Wickey) indeed brings his treachery to the fore with little ado. Edmund subtly impresses lies on his half-brother Edgar (Tim Linn) driving Edgar into exile. He foists his resentment on their sire, Lear’s most trusted noblemen Gloucester (Michael Pocaro), pushing him into disfavor with Regan’s Duke Cornwall. Edmund sadistically plays paramour to both of Lear’s daughters Regan and Goneril driving them to each others’ throats. Wickey channels something dim and sinister from his character, and almost comical in his portrayal of an archetypal super villain that really has no aim beside sowing chaos, knowing in the end he must be caught to fulfill his infamy.
King Lear has its share of train wreck moments in the follies of the characters. Every character has some personal drama. Everyone goes crazy.
Edmund’s foil Edgar, looses touch with reality while banished, wondering the wilderness calling him self “Poor Tom”. Linn showed promising acting range in his earnest and noble portrayal Edgar, flipping a switch to enter Poor Tom by evoking the paranoid split-personality persona of J.R. Tolkien’s cast away Gollum, and it worked.
Poor Tom grovels around, spewing just as much wisdom as non-sense, stooped and erratic, as Linn’s sinewy body lurched under his wet stringy long hair until happenstance brings Poor Tom into Gloucester’s presence. His father, Gloucester blathers away too, sucked in the undertow of his guilt for falsely accusing his son Edgar of treachery, and stricken by Cornwall’s vicious wrath that extracted Gloucester’s eyes.
The Fool (David Flores) flits about Lear loyally, however sarcastic, mocking Lear in song, rehashing the troubles of Lear’s throne. Betraying the name of the character, Flores adds plenty of theatrical dressing to this character with his stage presence and singing voice. Hoffman really made a great choice in Flores, as this character easily could have been lost in the fray without his moxie. Although aided heavily by The Fool, King Lear needs no help in finding hysterical and inglorious madness.
Long Live the King
The character of King Lear contains complexity of a archetypal patriarch, a detached, caring, and long suffering parent, yet ornery and down right nasty when pushed. Johnson, a seasoned stage actor, conjured up a tremendously entertaining performance as King Lear. It was like seeing a possessed William F. Buckley cyborg crossed with Gary Oldman and Andrew Dice Clay, endlessly hitting all the pomp notes and vulgarities in the dialog.
King Lear incensed at his daughters’ defiance at every turn, spends much of the play in a blissful rage, stumbling about the countryside playful at times, but generally a hair-trigger pull away from verbal tirades that likely are the inspiration for the Shakespeare Insulter website.
A truly tortured man, Lear lasts longer than he intends, unaware that his loyal attendants guide him from peril, many to their own undoing. Even his own discarded daughter, Cordelia, attempting to restore her father’s glory with the help of France, is ensnared by the forces working against Lear. Imprisoned and defeated, life lets them free mercifully.
A Smashing Success
Rounding out the ensemble the presence of Mitch Weindorth (Corwall’s Servant), Harry Loeffler-Bell (Cornwall’s 2nd Servant), Margaret Casey (Gloucester’s Tenant), and Chris Goode (Lear’s Knight) did not go unfelt. Making their accomplishments on stage even sweeter, Figlesthaler and Amato are also credited as co-producers King Lear.
Unfortunately for those without passes, King Lear’s run has sold out going into its final week. The Alchemist Theatre’s King Lear opened July 11, 2013 and closes July 27.