The California Shakespeare Theater marks the end of Shakespeare season in the Bay Area with arguably the most challenging play of the canon: King Lear. This is a tough play to act, and it requires more than just “ripeness.” Lear must be ready and able to exert himself mentally, emotionally, and physically in order to capture the essence of this play, and the exertion must must must endure till the end.
For many actors, Lear is the role of a lifetime. Many are never “ripe” enough for the part. Veteran actor of both stage and screen, Jeffrey DeMunn, takes the lead, but unfortunately loses his way about two-third into the production. In a recent interview with San Francisco Chronicle freelance writer, Sam Hurwitt, DeMunn describes this opportunity as something “to maybe take a hack at,” and “to take a shot at.” With this in mind, I’d say the audience gets exactly what DeMunn has to offer. With this in mind, I can see why Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone was so “nervous” on opening night.
Director Lisa Peterson creates the play’s notion of having “all” and having “nothing” by setting this production in the 1920’s at the eve of the Great Depression. The set (designed by Rachel Hauck) is meant to resemble “the skeleton of an industrial city,” comprised of scaffolding extending from stage right, with ladder beams and an upper platform used by soldiers at watch as well as by the sinister Edmund, who watches his plans unfold with a pair of binoculars. Upstage left towers a riveted Wheel of Fortune,” of sorts, through which actors enter and exit the stage, and numerous oilcans are scattered about. This determinately barebones set design is meant to represent the stripping of the self. Even more interesting is the oxymoronic fact that the set is blatantly manmade, while the play, itself, focuses heavily on the theme of nature—be it human nature, man in the state of nature, or man versus nature. The set also helps create the storm against which DeMunn rages (mind you, the storm wins in this production) as numerous beggars pour water into and beat on the oil drums, and create thunder by shaking 4’x8’ sheets of metal they hang from the scaffolding. Lighting Designer Alexander V. Nichols displays a bit of brilliance by beaming bolts of blinding light into the audience, forcing us to share Lear’s pain in a Platonic cave emergence, if you will, as he takes his first insightful look at himself and at the world around him.
Costume Designer Meg Neville dresses up quite a fashionable stage, with the Marcel-waved women wearing small-brimmed cloches, the shorter hemline of the Flapper era, drop waists and handkerchief hemlines, bright colors and richly-textured fabrics of silk, wool, velvet, fur and leather. The gents sport top hats and tails, Oxford bags, soft caps and knickerbockers, short silk ties and bowler hats, with an apple cap and navy pea coat for the disguised Kent (Andy Murray) who looks and talks like one of the tough guys you’d find down at the docks. Murray’s presence onstage is as solid and welcome as ever. His transformation from Kent to Caius is made complete with a subtle, yet pronounced accent regression in the midst of soliloquy, his voice going from courtly to heavy-handed right before our ears. Out of fashion is Liam Vincent, who wears a long, patent leather trench, collar dramatically flipped up, hemline flared with every courtly (or queenly) turn. Vincent’s snooty portrayal of Oswald is excellent, aside from a too dramatic death scene, but his apparel is questionable and left unanswered.
Death and injury on this stage is, in general, too dramatic. Ravi Kapoor as Edmund, who comes across as a member of the Rat Pack in a Broadway musical rather than a Hobbesean portrayal of human nature, claims he’s “seen drunkards do more than this in sport” when he does mischievous injury to his arm, but the excessive blood pellet makes me question his statement. The gore that plucks Gloucester’s (James Carpenter) eyeballs (with an imposing corkscrew, nonetheless) is appropriately vulgar and bloody, and is well-executed by L. Peter Callender, who portrays the Duke of Cornwall with a dark, foreboding, and authoritative edge. But is it really necessary to hit the audience left and right with blood pellets (not literally, thank God!)? Peterson thinks so and continues to do so, as her actors forgo much of this play’s emotional brutality for the sake of spectacle. Peterson states, “We must embrace the violence that exists in this text in order to find a way through it.” After fishing through the array blood pellets, head bashing, eyes plucking, back stabbing, bull rushing, uncalled for WrestleMania, I’m a bit “Oooed” and “Ahhhed” out, and lost in motivation.
There are some stars in this production. While Kapoor as Edmund seems too self-absorbed to offer much to his audience, Erik Lochtefeld as Edgar, and more importantly as Poor Tom, gives all. Cal Shakes loves shaking things up a bit by offering their audience onstage nudity. Hearken back to RIII this season and As You Like It last. Edgar descends under the stage through a metal grate and emerges without a stitch, speaking in gibberish and running ‘round with nothing but a scrappy pair of boxers in his hands, sort of draped over the main attraction. Murray’s Kent shines, and Anthony Fusco steals the show as the clever Fool with his vibratic songs and thoughtful riddles. Fusco does well by playing the realist, and portrays himself as the only character who knows Lear and knows exactly what Lear needs, truth included. Yet he never crosses the line to the point of being banished. The three sisters fit their parts well. Delia MacDougall and Julie Eccles play the fed up and eventually evil sisters Goneril and Regan, while Sarah Nealis as Cordelia graces the stage with all the beauty and charm of that good fairytale princess we’ve all read about. Cordelia’s greatest tragedy in this production is that she dies a better death offstage than her father does on.
This production runs a long 1:45 till intermission, covering the first three Acts of the play, with the last twenty minutes or so bombarding the audience with Lear’s madness, the chaos of the storm, and the blinding of Gloucester. It’s at this point the temperature in Orinda drops like clockwork, literally pitting man against a frigid nature for the final hour following Intermission. DeMunn proves regal and authoritative in the beginning of the play as he divides his kingdom in three, and as his mind begins to turn, DeMunn physically takes it out on himself, pounding his head, gripping his throat and chest, and ripping at his clothes. Interactions with his Fool are touching, and permit the audience to feel his distraction and to sympathize. His moment on the stage, bedecked in weeds, during which he engages in a most intimate encounter with a fictitious mouse stage right is the only moment in this play where DeMunn embraces Lear with his emotions, his mind, and his body. After this, DeMunn is done. His death is at best lackadaisical and mechanical. Bottom’s Pyramus died a better death. And unfortunately, Demunn’s lack pushes up the daisies for this production in the end.