In the terrible aftermath of Elliott Rodger’s vicious murder and mayhem spree, parents everywhere must be asking themselves, “Could my child ever commit such heinous crimes?” That sobering thought coupled with the fear of many children to become their parents fuels the intellectual and dramatic fires of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s tenth production of King Lear.
The title role is a vrai milestone for any actor. Colm Feore’s performance has much passion for himself and his plight, but needs far more nuance and variety of tone in the early acts if his final descent into darkness is to be sustained over nearly three hours.
Antoni Cimolino’s direction has its customary crisp pacing (having the ~1606 homeless speed along the set changes is a fine thematic reinforcement if on some occasions—notably the equally cryptic pea soup fog—they appear more like zombies than the economically challenged of that era. Yet there are a few self-indulgent moments (Cornwall—ever-flexible Mike Shara—doing a couple of lines of coke before meting out blind justice; rolling eyeballs on the thrust stage and encouraging Feore to milk the politician’s jibe—yes, there is an election on just now) that add little to the familial ebb and flow that dominates the text.
Faring better as the perplexed father, Scott Wentworth delivers a Gloucester for the ages. He masterfully scales the full emotional arc from diehard royal loyalist to dumbfounded sire—in and out of wedlock—of two sons who couldn’t be more opposite. Brad Hodder plays the bastard, Edmund, with conniving understatement that can be seen and heard daily in estate-squabble court; his ladies’ man/boozer brother, Edgar, is given an exceptional turn by Evan Buliung (most especially in the feigned madness appearances as Mad Tom who sticks by his dad in ways Lear can only imagine).
Of course Lear seals his own fate in the play’s inciting incident: ready to give up the throne, the doddering monarch parades his three daughters before him to hear from All my Children just, in detail, how much they love him. Any parent who demands such protestations of adulation most assuredly has no understanding of child psychology much less the frequently debilitating notion of “Dad/Mom always loved you best.”
As the eldest, Goneril, Stratford newcomer Maev Beaty is appropriately fawning, duplicitous and lecherous as required, but her lines might be better understood if their tempo were to be slipped down a notch or two. Liisa Repo-Martell (also making her début) is a most convincing middle sister, erring on the side of greed in her own view of how the world ought to turn while Sara Farb brings poise and a quiet, Ophelia-like eloquence to the youngest, Cordelia whose Achilles’ heel is daring to speak the truth. After doing so, her very foolish father summarily disinherits the love of his life.
To balance the family bickering, Shakespeare tosses in a wee bit of war, a horrendous storm (Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound and Michael Walton’s lighting combine for a truly spectacular son et lumière, but the overlong, too-loud-by-half rain only manages to mask some of the early lines after intermission) and the deft deployment of the King’s Fool. Stephen Ouimette outdoes even his own exacting standards drolly tossing out his words of wisdom to a ruler that most certainly should not “get old until you’re wise.”
Alas, there’s the real tragedy of the tale: by journey’s end—and without a larger helping of delectable subtleties—the old adage, “There’s no fool, like an old fool” seems more properly to be laid at the foot of He Who Must Be Praised than the silly old court jester. JWR