Is it possible to learn something new from a 400-year-old play? Yes, if the play is rich in insight and wisdom; if the production is attentive to detail and willing to take risks; and if there is a commitment to excellence by the company. WSC Avant Bard’s King Lear succeeds on all three counts, and so may be the best theater in Washington right now.
We think of Lear as the monarch who botched his succession plan, but he is more than that. Lear is the widower who has finally moved in with his daughter’s family and learned that bedtime is 10 PM and that he is no longer allowed to smoke cigars. Lear is the bank president who, upon his retirement, finds that his successor will invest in credit default swaps. Lear is the mother who, upon becoming a grandmother, is told that her child-rearing practices were all wrong. Lear is the country doctor who, having sold her practice to a health care corporation, discovers that her old patients are getting pain medication instead of lifestyle counseling.
Lear is, in short, all of us, holding on to our present tenses for dear life, against the tide of history and our inevitable decay. Lear, like all of us, finds who he is in what he does. For you, it might be analyzing legislation, or dramaturgy; for Lear, it is being King of England. Lear decides to surrender the cares of office (as most of us do, sooner or later); the challenge, for him and for us, is to do so without surrendering himself. King Lear is about his failure to do so — he loses kingdom, self, and everything dear to him.
In WSC Avant Bard’s intimate production, Lear is as much a story of a father as it is a story of a King. We see it immediately, in Jonathan Dahm Robertson’s unsettling set: uneven strips hang from above; in the background are panels of what appears to be a geodesic dome shattered by bazookas. We are unmoored in time, in the Kingdom of rags. Lear (Rick Foucheux, capping off his superb career with this highly satisfying performance) strides into Court, surrounded by minions. “Gloucester,” he barks out. (In an inspired touch, director Tom Prewitt has turned Gloucester female, played by the excellent Cam Magee. This will open up very provocative options later.) “Attend the Lords of France and Burgundy.” This is not a persuasive leader; this is dad, directing dinner arrangements.
We all know what happens next, but we don’t know why. Lear is prepared to step off the throne, and give his kingdom up to his three daughters in equal shares, under certain preconditions: a hundred knights remain in his retinue, and he is (and they are) to have free access to his daughter’s homes, and also the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest”. He then requires his daughters to profess their love to him in the most grandiose manner possible. Goneril (Alyssa Sanders) and Regan (Charlene V. Smith), oozing insincerity, offer their fealty in terms usually reserved to catechists addressing their deity. Cordelia, his favorite, (Kathryn Zoerb) offers none — “I love your majesty according to my bond”. Lear responds by disinheriting Cordelia and dividing his Kingdom between his more fulsome daughters, and when his loyal lieutenant, Kent (a fabulous Vince Eisenson), attempts to intervene, Lear banishes Kent.
Is Lear a suppurating narcissist, who makes his decisions from a soft cradle of lies? Perhaps, though it is unlikely that so ill-equipped a leader would have been so successful a King. The anxious, tumbling way Foucheux approaches his speeches here suggests another explanation: that Lear knew the peril he would be in once he gave up his throne, and needed his heirs to, in this public place, swear a fealty so far-reaching that they could not deny it later without fear of fomenting rebellion.
Of course, it doesn’t work. Goneril and Regan immediately scheme to rein in their impulsive father, and if Lear doesn’t realize that he has condemned himself by surrendering power, he has his Fool (Christopher Henley, as good as I’ve seen him) to tell him. (When Lear asks, “Dost thou call me fool, boy?” the Fool answers “All thy other titles thou hast given away; that thou wast born with.”)
So established, King Lear almost writes itself. Lear, divested of his Kingdom in favor of his children, gradually is divested of his selfhood. Goneril and Regan are both self-obsessed sociopaths who believe that their own rise to power is overdue, but their complaints against Lear are not without justice. The old King’s raucous retinue has caused much disruption in the Kingdom Goneril and her husband Albany (Christian R. Gibbs) rule, and when he decides to make a premature visit to the Kingdom Regan shares with her husband, the ruthlessly aggressive Cornwall (Frank Britton), they are unprepared for the demands of Lear and his large staff. This is not simply the story of the good King betrayed by his treacherous children; this is the story of the surrender of power to the next generation, whether in family, business, or state.
There is a subplot, involving Gloucester. She has two sons: Edmund (Dylan Morrison Myers), who was born out of wedlock, and Edgar (Sara Barker). Edmund is as ruthlessly ambitious as anyone in this play, and twice as clever; he implicates Edgar in a plot to overthrow their mother and, with his half-brother out of the way, proceeds to overthrow their mother. That done, he sets his designs on England itself, romancing Goneril and Regan alternately as he contemplates their murder, and that of their husbands.
WSC Avant Bard’s production is full of illuminating touches which makes this play both easier to understand and more important. Lear’s descent into madness seems to be a quick one, but is easier to understand if you assume, as Foucheux told me in this interview, that “he was always destined to be King…And he really considered himself a divine King.” When Lear rages, observe the number of times he glances upward. He is furious at Goneril and Regan, to be sure, but his most personal anger is directed at God. I’m Your boy, he seems to be saying. Why are You doing this to me?
The second enduring mystery to the play is the fate of the Fool. We last see him helping a stuporous Lear escape, on Gloucester’s urgent advice, to Dover; he never appears again. But in his final utterance, while under Albany’s custodial control, Lear says “my poor fool is hanged”. How does he know? What does he see?
Foucheux talked about that, too. “There is that moment with [Lear] and Gloucester…he’s babbling, and there seems to be non sequiturs everywhere…Interestingly, last night…we talked about the Fool’s influence on Lear and how some of these non sequiturs and some of these things that might appear to be babbling from the King are in fact echoes of things that the Fool has said…Who is this character, the fool? Is he already a voice in Lear’s head? And nothing more?”
Henley is certainly more than a voice in Lear’s head: he is a vivid, mocking presence who torments Lear and pricks away at everyone else. But could such a creature actually exist? Dressed in clownish pinks, mincing and howling, the Fool says things to Lear far more cutting and insulting than any of the things Cordelia or Kent said that got them banished. Aside from that, the Fool radiates fear; in tense situations, he crouches down, covering his head with his hands, and when he hurls his cutting jibes, he ducks, much as a soldier throwing a hand grenade from a foxhole might. Is it possible that the only person who would be allowed to say such things to Lear is…Lear? And is it possible that this effeminate, fearful, needy Fool is the person who the hypermasculine Lear wishes he could be, at least once in a while? And when his poor fool is hanged, does Lear recognize that his own time has run out?
Finally, Prewitt’s decision to turn Gloucester’s gender enriches the play in a way that would have been impossible in Shakespeare’s time. Gloucester occupies a position somewhere between ally and subordinate; the obedience is loyal rather than servile. At the end of the play, each having been undone by untrustworthy progeny, they reach for each other free from the bonds of status and protocol. In this production, they hold each other and kiss unrestrainedly. What’s love got to do with it? Everything.
Making Gloucester female accomplishes much more than that, though. With Magee as Gloucester, we get a different model of loyalty than we get from most male Gloucesters, freer of ego and without any sense of rivalry. Since our culture (like almost all) reveres the mother-child bond above all else, Edmund’s betrayal seems even more horrifying than it otherwise would. And when Cornwall exacts his terrible punishment on her (I won’t tell you what it is) the shock is so profound it is almost as though we were all profanely insulted.
By setting the play in anytime, Prewitt universalizes the story (Elizabeth Ennis’ beautiful costumes, many of which could be described as “military chic”, provide material assistance) and enables some terrific performances. Foucheux makes no effort to turn Lear into a sympathetic character, but we sympathize with him anyway because his dilemma is our own. His carefully nuanced performance opens the play up to us. Magee gives us a pitch-perfect version of a powerful woman dealing with an even more powerful contemporary; I could look at her performance and imagine Valerie Jarrett in the Obama Administration, or Condoleezza Rice in the administration of the second Bush.
closes June 25, 2017
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Edmund is one of the best roles in all of Shakespeare and Myers gets all of it, ranting and snarling one moment and as soothing as Sominex(tm) the next. Like Richard III, he vents to the audience, but unlike Richard, Edmund is animated by the sheer joy of doing ill. Myers is absolutely credible at this; Myers’ Edmund is the character most likely to stick a shiv between your ribs.
I’ve already mentioned Eisenson, who was a late addition to the cast. Kent is really the only heroic character in the play, and Eisenson helps us to understand why. He is a brave man, who tells truth to power without making too much of himself. The laconic drawl he adopts makes us see a man at ease in his surroundings; even when Cornwall puts him in stocks he accepts the humiliation with equanimity. (Amusingly, when he mockingly pretends to flatter Cornwall, he assumes a Scottish burr. That would have gone over well in 1605, when the play was first performed and England was ruled by the Scot James I.)
To appreciate how good a job Henley has done with the Fool, go back and read the play after you’ve seen it. You’ll see how hard the Fool’s line reads are; Shakespeare appeared to reserve the most archaic language for the Fool’s speeches. Yet I have never heard the Fool’s lines get more laughs than they did in WSC’s production. Henley delivers the lines with such precision, and such keen timing, that you would have to be, well, a fool not to laugh.
WSC Avant Bard operates on a small budget, but you could not tell it from the technical work, and in particular the lighting (John D. Alexander) and sound (Justin Schmitz) designs. When it was time for war, they gave us hell from the clash of armies at Thermopylae to the sound of mortar fire in Iraq. When it was time for a thunderstorm, they were so realistic that I checked at intermission to make sure that my car was not underwater.
It is always a melancholy moment when a great actor takes his leave from the stage, and as much as I enjoyed this show I know I will miss watching Rich Foucheux practice his art. There is some satisfaction, however, in seeing him finish by taking this iconic role, and imbuing it with the passion, gravitas, dignity and insight which has been his stock in trade for nearly forty years.
King Lear by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Prewitt, assisted by Quill Nebeker. Featuring Vince Eisenson, Cam Magee, Dylan Morrison Myers, Rick Foucheux, Alyssa Sanders, Christian R. Gibbs, Charlene V. Smith, Frank Britton, Kathryn Zoerb, Louis E. Davis, Christopher Henley, Sara Barker, Tiffany Byrd, and Greg Watkins . Scenic designer: Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Lighting designer: John D. Alexander . Costume designer: Elizabeth Ennis . Sound designer and composer: Justin Schmitz . Properties Designer: Audrey Bodek . Fight choreographer: Casey Kaleba . Vocal coah: CHristine Hirrel . Dramaturg: Brett Steven Abelman . Stage manager, Keta Newborn, assisted by Kristina Jackson . Produced by WSC Avant Bard . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Note: Mr. Henley is a colleague of mine at DCTS, and with his husband Jay Hardee co-directed my play Dracula. A Love Story at the 2014 Capital Fringe. Also, Mr. Abelman is a colleague of mine at DCTS. None of this affected my review.