Wednesday, December 5, 2018

King Lear (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Mentioned to a friend I was going to see ZJU's King Lear and referred to it as "Shakespeare's darkest play."  My friend disagreed, insisting that title goes to Titus Andronicus.  But as he listed the reasons why, I interrupted to clarify.  The one is easily the most brutal, the most violent, but that to my mind is not quite so dark. 

Here's what I mean.

King Lear (Robert A. Prior) is not an obvious tyrant.  Indeed he has inspired vast loyalty in those outside his family.  Those around him are not all habitually brutal or selfish.  Albany (Christopher Sonafelt), Gloucester (Paul Carpenter), and Kent (Tom Trudgeon) to name three are mighty, powerful Lords who are clearly honorable, ever striving to be fair and just.  While Regan (April Sigman-Marx) and her husband Cornwall (Anthony Feole) are evidently not the nicest people, they don't seem guilty of any great crimes when the play opens.

But--Lear did just one thing wrong.  One thing.  One very human mistake.  He banished his youngest and most honest daughter Cordelia (Carlita Penaherrera) because she wouldn't flatter him enough--and then to compound the error he gave all his power away.  Yes, he was tired and old.  He wanted to bestow upon younger hands the dreadful burden of office.  There's even a hint he realized his danger, at the start of the play.

Credit: Denise Devin
So human frailty leads to utter catastrophe.

Because Goneril (Sasha Ilford), the eldest of his daughters, proves to be one of those who obeys the law out of fear.  Once her father can do nothing to stop her, she finds reasons to strip him of protection, of status, self-respect or even the trappings of power.  Regan and Cornwall follow suit.  Once it starts, the floodgates open until Gloucester's eyes are put out for simply showing compassion to his King. 

Likewise Gloucester makes a mistake as well, believing the evidence presented to him about his legitimate son Edgar (Christian Sullivan) manufactured by the illegitmate Edmund (Saint Ranson). 

Civilization, honor, loyalty, compassion--crumbling into random cruelty and greed at what?  Just a few mistakes.  The kind of mistakes we all make sooner or later.  We get in a bad mood and misjudge someone.  Look upon evidence and come to the wrong conclusion.

Credit: Denise Devin
The world of King Lear has all the virtues and good things of life.  What makes the story so dark is how fragile all that proves.  Society dissolves into chaos.  Because an old man got cranky.  Peace became war.  Because another old man made a mistake.  Yet is it really all down to Lear and Gloucester?

What if Cordelia had swallowed her pride and given the old man what he wanted to hear?  Or if Edgar had insisted upon staying to defend himself?  Albany proves a strangely ineffectual figure, and his lack of ambition seems to prevent him from countering his wife's plans until his hand is forced.  He could have done much.  In fact, although in theory at the end he should sit on the throne he wants to give it away!

Still, is this all it takes to strip away the humane and reveal the human beast?

Credit: Denise Devin
In the play, the answer seems to be "Yes."  And given recent events, can we doubt this is true?  If you doubt it, think back three years.  Yeah.  That is all it takes.

Darkness.  That light and hope can prove so fragile.

This production isn't doing anything especially different in design or concept.  I love things like that and director Denise Devin has done that aplenty in the past (often to wonderful effect).  This time she went with a perfectly straightforward idea, with quasi-medieval costumes (and fantastic ones they were too!) and a simple edit of the text.  Everyone--even the actors in relatively small roles like Gilbert Roy DeLeon, Ryan Lisman, Luc Rosenthal--simply did their parts, allowing the power of the story to work.  In this one that is what happened.  And that story warned us of just how dark the shadows really are, and how foolish we are to suppose light has banished them away. 

King Lear plays Sundays at 7pm and Mondays at 8pm until December 17, 2018 at Zombie Joe's Underground, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just south of the NoHo sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.

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