LEAR AND HUNGRY TIMES
With only a small caramel as dinner, I was concerned about the three-hour running time of director Bill Rauch’s contemporary adaptation of King Lear at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Fortunately, the forceful intimacy, powerful ensemble and modern relevancy made the hours fly, making this Lear a memorable feast.
The set design and technical effects are precisely and powerfully orchestrated to assist the mélange of old and new in this clever production. Ingenious touches abound, such as when a beautiful old-world chandelier is suspended as counterpoint to the appalling eye-gouging scene involving the Duke of Cornwall (Rex Young), who wears a red Manchester United tracksuit. Later, several hand-held utility flashlights illuminate Lear’s face as he goes mad on the dark, stormy heath (lights by Christopher Akerlind).
There is no bad seat and no escape from the intensity in this visually spare yet unrelenting production. The present-day costumes (Linda Roethke), set (Christopher Acebo) and chilling electronic “soundtrack” (Andre Pluess) transport Lear into the 21st century, inviting discussion about current social issues. At one point, the technical crew wheels in a massive basketball backboard, and the royal kingdom is ingeniously turned into a basketball court onto which the bastard conspirator Edmund enters, dribbling a ball while plotting out loud against his father. When Edmund strides on stage in a Desert Storm camouflage uniform, slinging a military duffle over his tautly muscled shoulders, the parallels between the play’s omnipresent warring, violence, and political machinations and today’s murky battles against terrorism are immediately striking.
Placed in a lazy boy recliner in front of a television set, then later in a wheelchair with an IV drip, the elderly Lear becomes a talking point about parents in decline from Alzheimer’s and dementia. Luckily none of these modern parallels get preachy, nor does Rauch’s direction suggest easy answers. Instead, such touches underscore the universality of all-too-human themes, making this brutal story as relevant to human crises in 2013 as in they were in 1606.
I saw Michael Winters as Lear, who alternates in the demanding role with Jack Willis. Winters creates an affable and boisterous King on the surface, but soon reveals a darkly infantile narcissism which both erodes his being and seals his doom after mistreatment at the hands of his scheming daughters. Daisuke Tsuji (a former member of Cirque du Soleil) makes the royal Fool puckish and athletic, luminously emphasizing Lear’s reverse maturation with well-delivered puns and a shake of a baby rattle decorated with the King’s face.
As Lear’s older daughters, Goneril and Regan, Vilma Silve and Robin Goodrin Nordli shine with malice. Sofia Jean Gomez does the best she can to personalize Cordelia, a role that is fundamentally an abstract principle of filial goodness. Her short punk hair and boyish swagger help us to identify with her disgust at her fawning sisters, but in the third act she comes across as little more than a Joan of Arc-styled stereotype of martyred nobility. Both Raffi Barsounian (as Edmund) and Richard Elmore (as the Earl of Gloucester) offer visceral, enthralling performances. Armando Duran (as the loyal Kent, humorously clothed at one point as a cable TV installer), Barzin Akhavan (as Oswald) and Benjamin Pelteson (as the legitimate son, Edgar) round out this commanding cast.
It’s difficult to imagine a more satiating production of King Lear for our unsettling times. You won’t leave hungry, I promise.
photos by Jenny Graham
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
scheduled to end on November 3, 2013
for tickets, call 800.219.8161
or visit http://www.osfashland.com