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Vol. LXIII, No. 14
 
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
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Music/Theater


SCHEMING SISTERS: Goneril (left, Jenna Devine) and Regan (Hannah Wilson) eagerly attend to their father King Lear’s distribution of his kingdom in the opening scene of William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Lear,” playing in a joint Princeton Shakespeare Company-Theatre Intime production at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through April 11.

“King Lear” Rages and Howls in Contemporary Costuming in Theatre Intime-Princeton Shakespeare Co. Collaboration

Donald Gilpin

Monumental, mysterious, thought by many to be William Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, The Tragedy of King Lear is demanding on its performers and its audiences. The poetry, the drama, and the human emotions are rich and intense. It is a harrowing story of parents and children, of immense love, hatred, suffering, and loss. Though it has received uninterrupted praise since Shakespeare’s first production in 1605, King Lear may be impossible to explain and virtually impossible to perform successfully.

It may also be Shakespeare’s most pessimistic play. No less a scholar and critic than Samuel Johnson said he could not bear the final act because it outraged Divine Justice and offended his moral sense. The words “nothing” and “never” reverberate throughout the King Lear, and the play delivers, without mercy, its dominant image of the abandoned old king raging in anguish in the final acts, bereft of daughters, kingdom, and his own mind. The modernist sensibility of despair, minimalism, and austerity — most strikingly represented in the works of Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot and others, with their unflinching contemplation of the void — has found particularly strong affinities for King Lear.

In their current production, Princeton Shakespeare Company and Theatre Intime promise “a daring reinterpretation,” and director Laura Fletcher, Princeton University junior, has dressed her actors in informal contemporary attire, rehearsed them with care and intelligence, and embraced a down-to-earth, realistic approach. In her director’s note, she claims to see Lear not as a play about “thankless children” — Lear betrayed by his two power-hungry older daughters, Gloucester deceived and brought down by his bastard son Edmund — but rather a story about a culture of cruelty, with Lear vainly, foolishly pitting his daughters against each other and Gloucester alternately ignoring and ridiculing his own son.

“As far as I can tell,” Ms. Fletcher writes, “this is just a play about people …. No character in this play is evil; they are all just trying to fix a bad situation in the best way they know how.”

Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Lear,” a joint production by Princeton Shakespeare Company and Theatre Intime, will run Thursday, April 9 through Saturday, April 11 with performances at 8 p.m., at the Hamilton Murray Theater. For tickets, call (609) 258-1742 or visit www.princeton.edu/utickets.

This production features a cast of fourteen capable undergraduates. They know their lines, they understand what those complex, poetic lines mean, and, except for a few lapses in clarity of diction, they deliver those lines purposefully, in a naturalistic, often low-key style, appropriate to Ms. Fletcher’s concept and to the tone of the rest of the show. Elizabeth Kassler-Taub’s unit set design — with its arches for entrances stage right and left, two large steps upstage center and occasional boulders and pieces of furniture brought on between scenes — provides a simple, effective background for the action of the play. Lighting by Michael Gordon is similarly straightforward in establishing the various locales of the action from Lear’s palace to the barren heath, with various locations throughout England in between. At key moments, it adds dramatic coloring and texture to enhance the tone of the proceedings.

Ms. Fletcher may be right, at least intellectually, but not dramatically. There is ample warrant in the play for seeing these characters as universal figures in contemporary clothing, and there is plenty of justification for seeing the children’s side in these conflicts. Lear says he is “more sinned against than sinning,” but the other characters certainly have their own legitimate complaints too. The Tragedy of King Lear may indeed be “just a play about people,” but that approach to the production results in a rather long (almost three hours), low-key evening. We appreciate the reminder — in costuming and acting styles — that these are timeless characters, who could inhabit the twenty-first century. But there’s something about seeing this cast in sports jackets and suits, open-collared sport shirts or button-down collars, contemporary skirts, blouses, and dresses, which saps energy and interest from this production. The wild extravagances of language, character and situation that make the text so fascinating and vibrant are all toned down here. Instead of transporting us to the astonishing, untamed world of prehistoric Britain, this production invites us to join a well dressed gathering of modern-day university undergraduates.

One noteworthy exception to this muted approach lies in the dynamic fight scenes, choreographed by Paul Bangiola with exciting energy and panache. A shockingly dramatic and bloody staging of the sadistic Cornwall (Michael Lowden) gouging out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester (Pete Walkingshaw) for the suspected crime of treachery is especially riveting. The world of King Lear may in some ways be a familiar one to the modern sensibility, but it is also a wild one, at times very strange and terrifying. There are, as Ms. Fletcher points out, realistic characters, relationships, and situations here, but the text of King Lear also features abundant extravagance, madness, villainy, and melodrama.

Right from the start, King Lear adopts a fairy-tale-like guise, as the aging, misguided monarch, played with confidence and austerity by Max Rosmarin, prepares to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. He proceeds to demand that each declare the extent of her love for him.

Goneril (Jenna Devine) and Regan (Hannah Wilson), the two elder daughters, make extreme professions of devotion, full of fawning hypocrisy, but Cordelia (Phoenix Gonzalez) the sincere, loving, youngest daughter, refuses to compete with her siblings and relies instead on reticence. Lear angrily disowns her, gives the other two daughters his whole kingdom and banishes the loyal Earl of Kent (Mr. Bangiola) for pleading on Cordelia’s behalf.

Lear sets the tragic action in motion, but the rapacious Regan and Goneril, with eager support from Gloucester’s conniving illegitimate son Edmund (Brad Wilson), rapidly accelerate the villainy, and Lear, in a state of rage and sporadic madness, finds himself cast out and homeless. He is joined in his banishment by his Fool the court jester (Dave Holtz), Kent in disguise, and later Gloucester’s loyal dispossessed son Edgar (Ben Knudson), also in disguise.

The ensemble is focused and ably harmonized. Josh Eisenthal also contributes deftly and articulately as Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, while Brad Baron as a clever, dangerous steward to Goneril and Nick Hybel and Raffi Grinberg in an array of different roles — all lend credible, helpful support to the proceedings. Shorter blackouts between the numerous different scenes, or, better yet, fewer blackouts with more cross-fades would help to further engage the audience and provide a shot of adrenalin to the production.

As Gloucester gloomily observes, “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide. In cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father,” and later, “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” The challenges of producing this distressingly bleak, intense and complex play are immense. June Fletcher, the Princeton Shakespeare Company and Theatre Intime have mounted a worthy, ambitious production.

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