King Lear | St. Louis Actor’s Studio

 

King-Lear 75It just has a whole lot of words, words, words. But they are such beautiful ones that we can forgive the length of some scenes that almost beg to be cut down.




King-Lear 500

 

King Lear is possibly Shakespeare’s most lyrical tragedy, yet it is the one that requires the most suspension of disbelief. It has a preposterous premise and several hard to fathom events throughout, yet it provides the gold standard of roles for classical actors of a certain age, just as Hamlet is the rite of passage in their younger days and Macbeth the one in the middle. The part is long and demanding, but it gives a performer everything he could desire as he struts and frets—power, frustration, anger, madness, vulnerability, and grief. In St. Louis Actor’s Studio’s production, John Contini demonstrates why he is one of St. Louis’s most respected actors. He is magnificent.

The play’s action is kicked off when Lear, a ruler back in pagan days when kingdoms were fashioned from the fruits of war, decides to retire. He wants to divide his realm among his three daughters (two of whom are married to dukes, thus giving him “sons,” but in this production they do not appear). Before he bestows his largesse upon them, however, he demands that each tell him how much she loves him. The elder two, Goneril (Meghan Maguire) and Regan (Missy Heinemann) are fulsome in their praises and emoluments to curry dear old dad’s favor, but his youngest, Cordelia (Jessica Laney) is at a loss for words. She doesn’t feel right about overstating her feelings the way her older sisters do, so she simply tells her father that she loves him as a daughter should do, which, for some reason, royally pisses him off and he tells her to get lost. His loyal subject, the Earl of Kent (Eric Dean White), is banished under penalty of death for objecting to this farce.

Of course, it was a stupid thing to do in the first place, but he prepares to live off the fat of the land at Goneril’s and Regan’s houses. As is still the case when elderly parents move in, neither wants him—he’s messy and unpleasant, plus he demands his 100 soldiers be housed with him. He goes to Goneril first who sends him to Regan, and she sends him back. Both tell him he only needs one companion, and that they are now the bosses of him. Lear doesn’t like this one little bit, and he curses them too. Meanwhile, his old friend the Earl of Gloucester (William Roth) is running into trouble with his two sons, Edgar (Justin Ivan Brown) who is legitimate and Edmund (Rusty Gunther) who is not. Edmund is a nasty, jealous bastard who sets up his own brother (this was way too easy to do, by the way) and becomes his father’s heir, which is Edgar’s birthright.

Lear takes off in a fury one night with the violence in the elements paralleling his mood, but now he is beginning to appear more crazy mad than angry mad. He has taken his Fool (Bobby Miller) with him and, unbeknownst to the King, the still loyal Kent in disguise who is still trying to protect him. Miller is nearly unrecognizable in sackcloth with wild white hair and beard, but he’s still trying to entertain and distract Lear. His pronouncements sound, well, foolish, but are actually wise. My only objection to his and director Milt Zoth’s interpretation of the role is that he seems to lean more toward Catskills than Cliffs of Dover in his delivery, but then he has one dynamic speech that demonstrates the fool is fooling us all.

Goneril learns that Gloucester is trying to help her father, so she blinds him for his trouble and sets him loose. He is found wandering in the wilderness by a lunatic who is nearly naked and calls himself “Poor Tom.” He is, of course, Edgar. When he recognizes his father, he rushes to aid him, even at one point convincing him that he has leapt from a great height in a suicide attempt but managed to survive. Actually Edgar trips him, but he’s pretty upset so he falls for it. He bemoans Edmund’s treachery and tells his companion how he should have trusted Edgar, but it’s too late. Eventually, Edgar will have a confrontation with his brother who is busy leading an army into battle against Cordelia’s troops recruited from France to try to protect her father’s interests. He is also wooing both married sisters because, well, you just never know. However, Goneril poisons Regan, kills herself, and Edgar, with Kent’s help, does prevail, but it is too late. Lear and Cordelia, now reconciled, are imprisoned and Cordelia hanged. Lear dies of grief.

The set and lighting by Patrick Huber are brilliant. A giant moon (sound familiar?) dominates the back wall, and the stage is set up with three levels created by stairs and small landings on either side. The playing space is in-between. The “moon” is also used as a screen to project images of desolation when Lear is wandering the land. Robin Weatherall’s sound design adds much to the excitement of the proceedings with trumpet calls dominating. Teresa Doggett has the costume design credit, and the whole look of the production has a Game of Thrones atmosphere. It’s a beautiful showcase for these talented actors.

It seems a bit much for Paul Cooper as “Knight” to represent both sides, but it’s not as confusing as it could be. David Wassilak as Oswald doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than serve as letter carrier among the warring camps, but he has a terrific death scene and is allowed to repent his disloyalty by revealing his information to Edgar before he dies. No one tries to “speak British,” which is a fine idea, and most of them enunciate clearly. There is a diction problem here and there with vowel sounds, but not nearly as many as I expected and none at all from Contini. He and Miller handle the demands of the many and varied lines with aplomb.

King Lear is a long play, even with a couple of characters cut out and at Zoth’s energetic pace. It just has a whole lot of words, words, words. But they are such beautiful ones that we can forgive the length of some scenes that almost beg to be cut down. It’s problematic that the Fool just disappears about two-thirds of the way through, which has given centuries of Shakespearean scholars fits, but Zoth has made an excellent choice here, probably as well as he could have done by making the Fool’s prophecy his “serious” speech, which links him with Merlin’s magic still to come, and Miller takes the long way around the stage and the audience as he delivers his last line about “sleeping until noon.” Every plot doesn’t have a tidy conclusion—Gloucester dies offstage, for example, after all Edgar tried to do to keep him alive, but at least now, the Duchy will be going to the right guy.

If you enjoy Shakespeare in general and King Lear in particular, it would be a mistake to miss this one. Contini does the best work I’ve ever seen from him, and that’s saying a lot. King Lear runs through June 23. You may contact stlas.org for information. | Andrea Braun

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