Imagine an elderly gentleman giving away the three houses he owns to his three grown-up children, expecting that he would be moving from one house to another after his retirement and they would look after him. This sounds like a very bad idea but that is what Shakespeare's King Lear did. Why? Was he an incompetent leader or slipping into a world of illusion? The Great Lakes Theater’s King Lear (directed by Joseph Hanreddy) poses this question without a definite answer, yet with a strong insinuation.
To write King Lear, Shakespeare, as usual, drew upon existing sources, including Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c 1135) and an anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Lear. So this king who makes a bad decision must have been familiar to Shakespeare.
Hanreddy interprets that the king’s "bad decision" results from his temper, narrow mindedness, lack of political maneuvering skills which may come from developing dementia. The decision to divide his kingdom among his children is the one that Lear makes without consultation with his children. In the play Cordelia enters with Lear, her arm around her father, and looks cheerful. As soon as the king announces his intent to divide the kingdom, Cordelia’s face drops. King Lear, played by Aled Davies, is short-tempered and short-sighted, who, throughout the performance, deteriorates as a king, father, and human, in his unfortunate journey of madness and despair.
Hanreddy also underscores the humanity of the other characters. Cassandra Bisell's Cordelia, for example, is loving in the first scene, but Bisell portrays Lear’s youngest daughter as a strong-minded and outspoken woman who demonstrates the assertiveness and judgment, suitable for her later position as a commander of the French army. Bissell's Cordelia does say "nothing" to Lear’s pressing question about how much she loves her father, but not from her humble personality but her disgust with her father's bad decision that will result in—as she clearly knows—her elder sisters’ abuse of power. J. Todd Adams’s Edgar shows his dedication to his father Gloucester who literally follows a King Oedipus’s path. Adams’s swift movement during the well-choreographed fight scene (fight choreographer, Ken Mercks)is one of the highlights of the show.
Set in a contemporary (non-period specific) time Hanreddy contrasts the monumental, orderly structure that appears in the bright light in the first half of the play and its ruins that stands in the eerie, cold light in the second (lighting designer Paul Miller). The Hanna theatre's proscenium stage is framed with gold colors, reminiscent of a classical painting in a museum. Within that frame are a massive wall (with big grids), two columns which collapse at one point in the show, and an oversized, round, gridded window—like a shoji screen—which also functions as a sliding door. This round window suggests the moon that witnesses all of the evil and violent acts of humans. At the top of the show, the window briefly is covered with a shadow, suggesting Gloucester's reference to "These late eclipses in the sun and moon." The round window also suggests Fortune's wheel, "The wheel [that] is come full circle" (Edmund). All entrances and exits take place through this window and two aisles in the auditorium, signifying different sites and locations in the play.
Hanreddy uses many of his "objects" to show Lear's rapid decline from King to a madman in the wilderness. In the first court scene, Hanreddy suggests the royal palace with an executive chair and desk. When he first begins traveling between his children’s realms he takes along this executive chair as he clings, pathetically, to the power and honor that he once enjoyed. Later in the performance, this shiny burgundy chair is replaced by an old, beaten-up, gray, smaller chair in the scenes of wilderness. The orderly looking wall and the round window at the beginning are all shattered, transforming themselves into sites of destruction, which scenic designer Linda Buchanan created from images of ruined buildings in war-torn Eastern European cities.
Martha Hally's costumes are contemporary but also timeless. Lear and his aides appear in black and red military uniforms in the first scene reminiscent of late nineteenth century European court attires. Hally’s design emphasizes the stark difference between the three sisters: Goneril's (Laura Perrotta) dresses in a conservative suit, Regan (Robin Cohen) in flashy pants and a multicolored poncho; while Cordelia wears a simple but elegant summer dress. During the course of the play the two older sisters' costumes do not change in style, suggesting their unchangeable characteristics. However, when the second time the audience sees Cordelia, as the head of an army in France, she wears a stylish navy-blue jacket over a skirt, suggesting the position and responsibility she has acquired during the course of the play.
Hanreddy creates dramatic onstage violence with stage blood, two prop eye balls, and the empty and bloody eye sockets of Gloucester (David Anthony Smith). In the last scene, Goneril and Regan, both dead, are wheeled on to the stage on two gurneys. Edmund (Jonathan Dyrud) dies soon after, from the wound inflicted during the fight with Edgar. Then Lear enters, carrying his youngest daughter, who has been strangled in the cell. The death of Lear ends the play. This final landscape with corpses of the entire family juxtaposes—dramaturgically and theatrically—the first scene with the living characters, highlighting Lear’s fall from wealth and glory to misery, despair, and death. What is left on stage is the broken, round window—this time, the wheel of misfortune.