Photograph by Steve DiBartolomeo
Patriarchy Unravels: Lawrence Hecht as Lear and Sofia Ahmad as his daughter Regan in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of 'King Lear.'
Father Knows Worst
Lawrence Hecht's complex portrayal of the tormented monarch highlights Shakespeare Santa Cruz's otherwise static production of 'King Lear'
By Joyce D. Mann
What happens when an aging man, in the early stages of dementia, turns over all his property to two scheming daughters and rejects his only loyal relative? The answer is--nothing good. If the man is the king of an ancient British region, then the answer is sheer disaster. Shakespeare's King Lear tells the story of such a man.
King Lear (Lawrence Hecht) is ready to give up his throne and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. As a test, he asks his daughters how much they love him. Sociopaths Goneril (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Regan (Sofia Ahmad) pledge total and unconditional love. The honest Cordelia (Mary McCool) gives a more measured and realistic answer. Lear throws a fit of rage and retaliates by sending her off to marry the king of France. The seeds of destruction are sown.
Factions develop, and the worthy Earl of Kent (Mike Ryan) is banished. Trouble is also brewing in the Earl of Gloucester's family, where bastard son Edmund (Dan Donahue) is plotting to have his half-brother Edgar (Christopher Oden) disinherited. Edgar escapes into the countryside and successfully disguises himself as a hermit, Tom o' Bedlam.
Lear hopes to spend his old age traveling between the homes of Goneril and Regan. Once they have the power, they turn on the old man, dismiss his servants, treat him disrespectfully and ultimately throw him out to wander the countryside with his faithful Fool (Craig Wallace). When Gloucester runs foul of Regan, she orders his eyes to be gouged out. Gloucester is cast adrift and fortunately meets the disguised Edgar, who takes care of him. We have two discarded fathers, one a madman guided by a fool, the other a blind man guided by a ragged hermit.
Hecht is brilliant in his richly textured and complex portrayal of the rapidly deteriorating Lear. He shows us two Lears: the one whose irrationality deprives him of the most precious things in his life and throws the country into civil war, the other terrified at the thought of his growing insanity but still showing flashes of wit and understanding. Lear understands that without full control of his faculties, he has little chance of surviving in the dark world he inhabits. His final scenes with the dead Cordelia are heart-wrenching.
Eastwood and Ahmad give restrained performances as Goneril and Regan, respectively. Neither fully conveys the evil they personify. Their best scenes are the ones with their father. Similarly, Charles Gamble as Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall, says and does bad things, but doesn't pack much emotional punch. When one thinks of King Lear, Cordelia always surfaces as a major player. However, although her impact throughout the play is enormous, she has relatively little stage time. McCool makes the most of her opportunities.
Ryan brings his usual aplomb to the role of the consistently virtuous Kent. Oden stands out in the role of Edgar/Tom, a part that allows him to play two totally different characters. Dan Donahue is a darkly brooding and charismatic Edmund. Wallace brings a new flavor to the role of Fool, with some very clever pieces of business. Sadly, Fool disappears mysteriously in the latter part of the play; we assume he's dead, almost everyone is.
Despite some excellent performances and the powerful language, this production on the whole is static. I suppose that's how director Skip Greer wants it. The nobles stand around looking, well, noble, because that's what noblemen do. Even Goneril and Regan play their parts guardedly.
The set design (Dipu Gupta) is less than impressive. Large rotating wagons, which predictably turn from hall to castle walls, are clumsy and don't contribute much to the atmosphere of pre-medieval gloom. The storm scenes (sound designer Ryan Gastelum) create a wonderful light show in the Glen, but pre-storm affects don't work and are distracting. B. Modern's costume design is brilliant: the colors and textures call up times past, but the styles have a timeless flavor. The ninjalike costumes of the soldiers are particularly awe-inspiring.
While Lear inhabited the world of ancient Britain, much is contemporary in the story. This production provides exceptional insights into the problems of aging and the emotional and physical abuse of the elderly. It gives people of all ages pause to think.
King Lear plays at the Festival Glen, UCSC, through Sept. 3. For performance dates and tickets, go to www.shakespearesantacruz.org or call 831.459.2159. 'Fools in the Forest,' a version of the 'Lear' story with a happy ending, plays Aug. 15 and 22.
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