The story playwright William Shakespeare wrote in one of his masterworks, “King Lear,” now being performed in a bold and vital production at Trinity Rep, exists in a legendary and imaginary realm, a world as basic and as essential to our collective imagination as a fairy tale. This is the essence of what Shakespeare intended — a primal myth of familial tragedy that tells us all we need to know about who we are and what we could become in this world of sudden sorrow and the utter fragility of the social contracts we construct for our mutual protection. Here our actions have the power to disturb the cosmos and fittingly this fine production directed by Kevin Moriarty offers deep insights to our most basic nature that are “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.”
This is an absolutely riveting production, one that amazingly makes it’s three-hour running time seem scant. Mr. Moriarty, who has helmed many wonderful productions at Trinity, has directed this co-production with the Dallas Theater Center, where he is now artistic director. The results of this collaboration features all of the fine ensemble acting one comes to expect at Trinity Rep and is lead by a bravura performance by Brian McEleney in the title role. Mr. McEleney here proves every inch a king, a father, a madman and, ultimately, an everyman.
The crumbling foundations of the king’s fall from grace are exposed early on. When we first see Lear receiving his guests as he prepares to divide his kingdom in three, he’s ensconced and exposed on a red velvet-cushioned throne within the wide confines of Michael McGarty’s austere and elegant set. The wood paneled room is as bare as a bereaved king’s mind and a chandelier hangs from the water mottled paneled ceiling above creating a sense of regal formality but one marked by rot from the top down. This king seems already “fond and foolish,” a man who tales delight in the tiny trappings of state affairs while failing to see the big picture. Mr. McEleney’s eyes shine with delight as he receives flattery and he beams his amused reaction to the audience as his fool cracks his bon mots. He has ever “but slenderly known himself” and takes bliss at his own willful ignorance.
We also see how easily hurt he is and how quick to his dragon’s wrath. Mr. McEleney hits each and every note of this symphony with a grand and royal florish. In a shrewd and entirely successful acting choice he seems all the more focused and lucid as he ensues his meteoric fall from mere pettiness into madness and despair. His kingdom and his house have fallen violently asunder (quite literally, too; those wooden walls falling to reveal rough and craggy rock beneath) and he’s bereft and quite crazed but marked by a sudden and utter clarity of will. There is a sense of wholeness that Mr. McEleney imbues into the character in these mad scenes that’s entirely absent from his former regal self. Lear may have lost all, but he’s finally his own man and his performance is by turns soaring, subtle and always moving. This is a magnificent portrayal of “Lear” that must not be missed.
Mr. Moriarty’s staging is lean and mean, stripping the show of extraneous trappings right down to the essentials, allowing the characters to drive the text at a breakneck pace. The elegant costumes by William Lane seem to place the play in the mid-20th century England, with pistols for sidearms and handcuffs for stocks. The look is recognizably modern in stark surroundings, minimalist and ultimately timeless. Particularly effective are the sudden and sometimes subtle shifts of lighting that hone the edges of the character’s soliloquies. Light and shadows accentuate the inner workings of the character’s private feelings; it’s used to great effect in the storm sequence during a little epiphany from Edgar, a line usually tossed off as part and parcel of his feigned persona. This adds a new dimension to the work by virtue of simply highlighting what is already present in the text.
Another facet of the production that shines is the result of a bold casting choice by Mr. Moriarty. In this version of “King Lear” the role of the Earl of Gloucester, a character written as a male, is played marvelously by a female actor, Phyllis Kay. This brings an added dimension to this tragedy that, to a modern audience seems (dare I say it?) an improvement on Shakespeare’s play as written. In addition to a cast-out and maddened father, we have an aggrieved and abused mother and the fitting symmetry of Lear’s three daughters and Gloucester’s two sons. The concept works precisely because the play now strikes even closer to home and to our hearts and brings the familial tragedy full circle.
This change of gender for Gloucester is made all the meaningful by the heartbreaking performance of Ms. Kay. Ever an adept actor, she conveys a sense of inner nobility that’s all-too apparent even in the depths of her despair. She seems to bear all the aggrieved weariness of the world in her voice as she declaims, “I have no way and therefore want no eyes,” assuming a demeanor of harrowed decency with nothing less than sheer stoicism that’s tragic.
The remaining cast is split between Trinity Rep Company members and actors from the Dallas Theater Center, and all acquit themselves nobly. Fred Sullivan Jr. is a more-than-serviceable villain as Oswald, all oily unctuousness in the role. Stephen Berenson makes for a wise, sweet but somewhat subdued Fool. Angela Brazil brings the petty relish of a proper villainess to Regan while Joe Wilson Jr. imbues a sense of decency to Albany that’s quietly powerful.
Among the team of visiting actors, Abbey Siegworth is a fine Cordelia and Christie Vela is a force to be reckoned with as Goneril. I liked the sense of a former soft and wastrel playboy who’s finally found his mettle that Steven Michael Walters brings to his portrayal of Edgar as I did Lee Trull’s utterly unapologetic evil machinations, ever coolly and calmly allowing his means to justify his ends. Chamberlee Ferguson is quietly frightful as the cold-hearted politician Cornwall and Hassan El-Amin is a stolid presence as Kent.
The tragedy in “King Lear” is that the tale of the destruction of two families is all too typical. Will Shakespeare is ever our contemporary; the fools and madmen on the blasted heath and tempests of the mind he wrote of continue to inform our literature and our thinking. Trinity Rep’s magnificent and searing production of “King Lear” brings this all full circle, firmly underscoring the universality of the tale in a manner that brings a sense of formal ritual and terrible inevitability to this tragedy. This is a production that reminds us to the core of our being that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time.” But it won’t be here forever. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this one.
WHERE: Trinity Repertory Co., 201 Washington St., Providence
WHEN: Through Oct. 21; check website for show times
COST: $28 to $68
MORE INFO: 401/351-4242; www.trinityrep.com