Why do so many theatre companies eventually feel compelled to do Shakespeare—often to their chagrin? It’s certainly not because his plays, as is, are still good theatre in contemporary terms. Yes, there is that magnificent language and imagery, there are utterly wonderful character studies, and there are buckets of wit (much of which is lost on modern audiences). But Shakespeare was never known for his dramatic structure. Moreover the language is often so archaic as to need translation. And to provide exposition the Bard inserts miles of what in opera we would call recitativo secco between those glorious poetic arias. Directors always cut the script, but they never have the heart to cut enough. So Shakespeare productions are all too often tests of our sitzfleisch and caffeine levels.
Why, then, is Shakespeare done? Well, many small companies are run by actors, and for an actor it's simply glorious fun to wrap your mouth around those gorgeous words. But also there is that religious reason: Shakespeare is, after all, a god. But he’s a fairly benign god. All he demands, other than our adoration, is that occasionally we lay a few hours of our lives on his altar.
The St. Louis Actors Studio has opened a fine production of "King Lear" and it's an excellent opportunity for you to make your little temporal tithe.
Now, like two of his daughters (and with somewhat less mendacity), I am perfectly willing to declare my great love for King Lear. The play is filled with iconic, legendary scenes—the irrational, reckless division of the kingdom and the breaking with Cordelia and Kent; the inconceivably powerful confrontation of Lear with the howling, booming storm; the blinding of Gloucester; the bizarre tragi-comic scene where Gloucester leaps off the cliff-which-isn't-a-cliff; the tender reconciliation of Lear and Cordelia; Lear's unbearably touching disbelief and grief over the body of his beloved daughter. These are scenes that have pierced to the heart of our Western culture.
Nevertheless, I tend to side with the renowned Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom when he says:
"Our directors and actors are defeated by this play, and I begin sadly to agree with Charles Lamb that we ought to keep rereading King Lear and avoid its staged travesties."
The Actors Studio production is certainly no travesty. It's directed by Milton Zoth and it's blessed with a first-rate cast of St. Louis' best veteran actors who do excellent work. John Contini, a long-time St. Louis favorite, brings a true regal air to the role of Lear, his raging at the storm is powerful, and his grief at Cordelia's death is heartbreaking.
Edgar, the good brother, is beautifully played by Justin Ivan Brown. This is certainly the second-most important role in the play(*), and Brown's Edgar is strong and complex. He takes total ownership of every line. As the mad "Poor Tom" he is almost frighteningly intense. This young man just gets better and better.
Rusty Gunther puts delicious doses of cool and cunning into the heartless wicked brother, Edmund, and William Roth makes Gloucester(**) a hearty and vigorous nobleman—who falls to pathos under the buffets of fate.
Bobby Miller, always a skillful artist, plays the Fool—and quite an eccentric Fool he is. With wild white hair and owlish eyes, and with a voice that gurgles down into a low range I never knew the actor owned, Miller's Fool seems something of an ancient gargoyle. There's nary a caper in this old man. There's a touch of Billy Crystal's Miracle Max from "The Princess Bride". But it certainly works. Shakespeare burdens the Fool with a number of riddles and wise-cracks that perhaps were a little opaque even when delivered on the stage of The Globe—and which are totally incomprehensible now. But Miller, God bless him, makes us want to laugh anyway.
Another particularly strong performance is given by Eric White as Kent. There's an air of battle-hardened manliness, yet grace, to this Kent, and White makes every line meaningfully his own.
Meghan Maguire, Missy Heinemann and Jessica Laney are committed and convincing as Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. David Wassilak and Paul Cooper round out the cast quite professionally as Oswald and a Knight.
The set, by Patrick Huber, is beautifully, classically simple—a huge moon over varied steps and platforms—all pearl gray. It achieves the non-specific flexibility of the Elizabethan stage. Teresa Doggett's costumes are beautiful and properly ancient.
The text of "King Lear" has been rather seriously, but deftly cut here. Instead of Shakespeare's thirty-some characters we make do with eleven. Shakespeare's four hours or so is reduced to two-and-a-half. But that is, perhaps, as it should be. The elimination of Goneril and Regan's husbands, Albany and Cornwall, leaves us a bit confused at times, and the elimination of Burgundy and France makes us wonder just what Cordelia is doing all this while—but you gotta cut something. The existing "canonical" text is, after all, a patch-up of various editions, and, as such, was never performed at the Globe.
So it's a really fine production, and unless you have firm plans to reread the play twice in the near future you should certainly take it in.
But there are shortcomings:
First, too often (as in almost all productions of Shakespeare) the lines seem to spring directly from the memory to the mouth without transiting the conscious mind. Too often actors are simply text-driven. Too often, once astride that meter, an actor lets it carry him smoothly, thoughtlessly to the end of a speech. No breaking the meter; no tiny pauses to show the birth of a word, or to emphasize a word; no little hesitations or varyings of pace to show that the actor really means the words he's saying. No ownership of the lines.
But more importantly—and inescapably—and like any production of "Lear," this production falls short of the sheer grandeur that one senses in this story; perhaps it's simply not within the compass of human actors' abilities to portray the greatness of spirit for which this play calls.
"King Lear" continues at the Gaslight Theatre through June 23.
* On the first Quarto edition of King Lear the sub-title is: "With the unfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam . . .".
** And, by the way, the accepted pronunciation is "Gloster" not "Glaowster". Shakespeare even spells it "Gloster" in his subtitle.