Audiences have enjoyed political intrigues for centuries. For the Elizabethan peasants who didn’t have Game of Thrones… well, there was Shakespeare’s King Lear, the mind-blowingly complex tragedy surrounding an aging king and his three daughters. What happens when Lear’s plan to divide his kingdom among his offspring goes awry? Murder, revenge, madness, mistaken identities, lust, and war, for a start. Now picture all that happening under a big, white tent on a summer evening, and you have the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of King Lear.
As usual, HVSF opted for a minimalist set, making use of only a few props. The play relied heavily on the characters and the relationships among them – an interpretation deeply true to the story, which is all about loyalties and personal vendettas. A dramatic entrance at the beginning set the tone: the whole cast mounted a hill in the distance and walked towards the tent. It was the first and last time that this group – a group of medieval Englishmen and –women, all supposedly courtiers devoted to their king – would be united until the final, epic battle.
Lear is serious challenge for any director to undertake, by virtue of its complicated plot and vast array of characters with swiftly-changing loyalties. While there were a few times that my head was spinning from all the different personages in the play, this production really kept on top of things by trying to let the audience “in on” any identity shifts. For instance, when Kent (played by Jason O’Connell… an actor who never disappoints) disguised himself as a servant called “Caius,” he repeated one of his lines a few times using different accents, to make sure everyone caught that he was going undercover. The actors also made the most of their monologues, like when Edmund (Ryan Quinn) explains to the audience that it was the circumstances of birth and upbringing that engendered his amoral lifestyle. Best of all, humor was another way the audience was drawn in, as Lear’s famous Fool (Wesley Mann) quipped nonsense advice to the king. Almost all of his lines – comprehensible or not – had the audience chuckling.
Stephen Paul Johnson’s (who visited the Pawling Shakespeare Club last year to give a talk) Lear was every bit as complex as the play called for. At the start of the play, he was a man who went beyond being a stern king and father: he was downright demanding, shouting at his children when he suspected that they were insulting him. I always detected some insecurity in the ‘first’ Lear we see, and I think Johnson embodied that very subtly, yet effectively. The next Lear is one in deep distress. The chemistry between Lear, the Fool, and Edgar (Charlie Francis Murphy) posing as ‘Poor Tom’ in the storm scene was enchanting. As Lear’s power wanes throughout the middle of the play, Goneril’s and Regan’s waxes. I especially enjoyed Regan (Eleanor Handley) as a character – something about her delivery made her seem particularly devious. Finally, Lear washes up in the final act as a madman, totally defeated and dazed. His reunion with his youngest daughter made my eyes water. Although Lear is at his weakest, Johnson also exuded a kind of peace and wisdom, as though Lear’s descent allowed him to admit that all his finger-wagging and peacocking had made him tired after all.
Although I’m usually saying the contrary, I wish that this performance would have had a small gimmick to add a little something extra. Nothing that would draw attention away from the intrigue, maybe if the costumes had something special, or they used more music? While there was great acting and an interesting story, the performance seemed to be missing just a little flair.
I thoroughly enjoyed my evening watching Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of King Lear. Make no mistake: it’s straight Shakespeare, true to the text, and a little difficult to follow. But the acting will enthrall you, the plot will keep you on your toes, and you will definitely leave the tent with a whole lot to think about.