Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shakespeare For The Masses: Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's King Lear

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's King Lear. (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Michael Lueger, to our group.

Reviewing a free production of Shakespeare in the park might seem to miss the point. It seems that every day brings fresh hand-wringing about the future of the theatre, and whether the trends of rising ticket prices and aging audiences have sent it into a terminal decline. In light of such concerns, it’s encouraging that organizations such as the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company (CSC), which has been mounting Shakespeare on the Boston Common for 20 years now, and which staged King Lear from July 22 to August 9, are bringing free productions of classical works to a wide audience. However, the relative decline in the importance of theatre in popular culture means that, for many of those attending events such as Shakespeare on the Common, this may be the only production that they see in the course of the year. Many of the 75,000 attendees (by the CSC’s estimate) who saw Lear this summer will have their impressions of the theatre in general shaped by what they experience at this production, and may base future decisions on whether to attend other shows on its quality. Given those circumstances, it’s worth critiquing the CSC Lear for what it gets right and wrong about presenting Shakespeare to a wider audience.

Lear stands in the first rank of Shakespeare’s tragedies, although it’s probably not as widely known as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, or Othello. I suspect that this is due in some part to its bleak nature. It’s one of the darkest and arguably most despairing of the major works, and directors such as Peter Brook have historically sought to emphasize these qualities, in his case by beginning intermission immediately after Gloucester’s blinding, leaving the old man to crawl offstage in agony while the house lights came up and the audience sat in stunned silence. There are no such coups de theatre in this Lear. It’s a fairly straightforward production of a decidedly mixed quality, although it has a solid, dependable Lear in Will Lyman. Lyman’s been a fixture of the Boston theatre scene for some time, although he’s best known for his voice, which will be familiar to anyone who watches the PBS series Frontline or has seen the ubiquitous commercials for Dos Equis beer. Lyman uses this voice to good effect in his portrayal of the mad king, varying the quality and intonation of his delivery in a way that tracks nicely with Lear’s deterioration. There are no real moments of jaw-dropping inspiration, but he has a number of very good scenes, especially with his beat progression in the later scene where Lear returns to sanity.

Will Lyman as Lear. (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)

The rest of the cast ranges across the spectrum from enjoyable to grating. Fred Sullivan, Jr., a longtime company member at Trinity Rep in Providence, gives a restrained, affecting performance as Gloucester, and Deb Martin and Jeanine Kane (replacing Mimi Bilinski) work up an intriguing arc to their relationship as ungrateful daughters Goneril and Regan, respectively. Ed Hoopman as Edgar and Mark W. Soucy as Albany also acquit themselves well. Unfortunately, there are also some rough spots in the cast. Mickey Solis brings intensity to the role of Edmund, but it’s unfocused, and he comes off as somewhat lost with regards to the verse. For example, when the Bastard proclaims that “my nativity was under Ursa Major,” Solis punches the name of the constellation with the sort of force that one would expect from Lear at the height of the storm, which makes nonsense of the line. Libby McKnight as Cordelia and Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Cornwall display a similar tendency to substitute energy for nuance. McKnight doesn’t find much vocal variation or emotional nuance in her role, and comes off as though she’s straightforwardly reciting the verse. Parent, on the other hand, projects one-note rage; it’s as though whoever typed up his copy of the script accidentally jammed their Caps Lock key.

Perhaps the two most confusing moments come from Jeremiah Kissel as Kent and Brandon Whitehead as the Fool. Kissel’s Kent starts with an abnormally gruff vocal delivery that then inexplicably becomes a cartoon French accent when the courtier returns in disguise to aid his king. Kissel’s able to muster an exciting moment in the confrontation with Oswald that lands him in the stocks, but his performance is continually marred by the bizarre vocal choices. The most egregious example of this comes when Kent reveals himself to Lear as the king mourns over the dead body of Cordelia: at this moment of supreme pathos, Kissel runs through the various accents he’s adopted over the course of the show, completely destroying the atmosphere of the scene. Whitehead’s Fool has a similarly wince-inducing beat earlier on in the play, when he pretends to interpret Lear’s command of “Come, boy” in the most sophomoric way possible.

Libby McKnight as Cordelia. (Photo by Andrew Brilliant)
These two embarrassing moments point to some of the issues I’ve had with Commonwealth Shakespeare in the past: they fall into the trap of assuming that providing Shakespeare to a popular audience entails stooping to an imagined philistinism that wouldn’t be a factor in a regular production. As much as I deplore those moments with Kent and the Fool, I think I understand the impulse that leads to them, and it’s evident in subtler ways throughout the show. It’s there, for instance, in Katherine O’Neill’s costumes, which mix together historical styles in a way that seems clearly aimed at servicing the needs of a given scene rather than cohering into a larger statement. When Edgar sheds his madman persona and dons a more general low-class disguise, she puts him in a contemporary-looking plaid shirt that’s meant to connote “blue-collar” to a twenty-first century audience, while the English soldiers wear vaguely late-nineteenth century uniforms that justify their carrying swords rather than guns (the French army’s uniforms, on the other hand, make them look more than a little like mimes).

That sense of throwing a few different ideas, good and bad, together also characterizes Steven Maler’s direction. He begins the play with an intriguing pre-scene beat in which Lear appears to dream of dancing with his daughters; as the dance progresses, it becomes wilder, with more and more of the cast appearing and adding to the frenzy, and eventually has Lear tossed about over the heads of his family and subjects. It’s an effective way to preview the rest of the play’s action. Some of Maler’s other concepts don’t work as well. For instance, Beowulf Boritt’s set, which consists of an upper and lower stage level divided by stairs, features a backdrop with Lyman’s face on it, with Lear’s justification for dividing his kingdom – “that future strife may be prevented now” – written across it. The backdrop is actually composed of individual, banner-like strips of material, which Edmund and other characters begin to pull down over the course of the first act. By the storm scene, the stage is bare, with the scaffolding revealed where Lyman’s face once glowered. It’s not necessarily a bad choice, but it felt superfluous – we’re already seeing Lear torn down and almost literally stripped naked onstage, so it’s unclear what the symbolic replication of this process achieves.

Ultimately, doing Shakespeare requires an extra level of trust between those producing the show and those watching, and my major reservation is that there’s still a hesitancy on CSC’s part to rest assured that their audience “gets it.” A strong performance like Lyman’s can carry a production like King Lear, and hopefully inspire some of the non-theatregoers in the audience to try attending a few other shows, but in the long term it’s necessary to prune some of the more ill-advised choices that this production makes and present something that’s simultaneously bold in conceptual terms and secure in the belief that the thousands who flock to the Common every summer will continue to come to see more challenging fare.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscenti page. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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