Shakespeare's great tragedy King Lear is a fable that dares portray in resounding verse some of mankind's most common but most harrowing issues. The tyranny of the selfish old, set against the arrogance of the selfish young; the toxic dissolution of family ties and family hierarchy; the horror of aging and senescence; the inevitability of human downfall; ambition, evil, and the sacrifice of innocents.
These huge and inescapable issues are rooted in the human condition. We huddle together in our families and societies to keep our human warmth. When these fail us, we become prey to merciless nature and to madness. Shakespeare is dealing in absolutes, great flaws and great consequences, as in all of the most enduring tragedies of Western literature.
Director Rudy Ramirez recruits a powerful cast for this powerful work, playing May 20 to June 18 at the Vortex Repertory in Austin, Texas. His effort to give King Lear contemporary references comes unfortunately close to trivializing the play.
Casting the august Jennifer Underwood as Lear, the proprietor and chief executive of the Lear broadcast network, is an audacious but laudable and exciting choice. Underwood has a visibility and reputation in the Austin theatre scene very akin to those in the United Kingdom of their titled theatrical dames. Her age is appropriate, her stature is distinctive, and her stage presence is enormous.
The director blunts the impact of that bold stroke with his puzzling decisions to change genders for three additional characters. Edgar the ousted and outcast heir of Gloucester becomes "Edda." The banished but faithful Kent is a woman, as is Lear's fool.
I accept the director's transformation of a kingdom into a contemporary media empire, but I am appalled to see the storm on the heath become a swarm of paparazzi around the numb, confused protagonist. Strobe flashes replace lightning. Live video of the stumbling Lear is projected onscreen.
Key narrative concerning the approaching battle and the subsequent defeat of Lear's supporters is delivered by talking heads in news studios, MSNBC-style, proving that style can decisively defeat substance. The "hot" images of broadcasters sitting in front of ranks of television sets create such cognitive dissonance with their Elizabethan language that they are virtually incomprehensible.
This dumbing-down of the events of tragedy is an over-pert commentary on the debased intellectual currency of our video age. Treating Lear's confusion on a par with that of any momentarily media-dazzled random victim of disaster shatters our sense of identification with the protagonist.
Underwood's performance in the first three acts is more querulous than royal, due in large part to her naturalistic delivery of Lear's lines, converting iambic pentameter into prose. Shannon Grounds as the red-headed Fool uses similar technique, making this fool sound more like a babbler than an oracle. Underwood finally unleashes her power in the mad scene in IV, 3, perhaps because the heightened emotional intensity enhances her delivery of the verse.
The strength of the acting of the rest of the cast helps sustain the piece despite Ramirez's approach. Micah Goodding as the scheming bastard Edmund has the animal magnetism and confidence of the successful sociopath. All three of Lear's daughters are vivid and convincing—Andréa Smith and Jennifer Coy are hatefully voluptuous and Suzanne Balling is a vulnerable although not frail Cordelia.
Despite the oddity of the cross-gender casting, Julianna Elizabeth Wright gave a good account of herself as Kent, and Amelia Turner adds unexpected emotional depth to the slim, kinetic outcast "Edda." Even so, the sight of the articulate and estimable David J. Boss moving furniture and figuratively carrying a spear as part of the ensemble was a reminder of Ramirez's lost opportunities.
The blinding of Gloucester is always a chilling moment in this play. Director Ramirez, Tom Truss as the vicious Cornwall and Mick D'arcy as the martyred Gloucester make it convincing and appalling. Toby Minor as Albany, husband to the treacherous Goneril, portrays a man of quiet decency stunned by events.
This Lear and Ramirez's approach oblige me to acknowledge a divide that I dislike: the gap between my own twentieth-century cultural consciousness, rooted in reading and narrative text, and the peculiar twenty-first century media mind of contemporary America.
I saw Lear on its opening weekend, thanks to a reviewer's ticket from the Internet marketing arm that sustains the Austin Creative Alliance, a non-profit service organization for Austin arts. My counterpart obligation was to file commentary on their website within three days — not a review, since the user interface limits submissions to no more than 1000 characters or roughly 250 words. The template requires a "star" rating on a scale of 1 to 5.
Those are sadly twenty-first century parameters, assumptions that it's valid to apply facile flash-analytic techniques to a complex work of art in order to derive a single numeric rating. (PlayShakespeare, to its credit, probes four parameters for ratings, and gives reviewers plenty of discursive elbow room.)
Jennifer Underwood's Lear is an arresting and often moving interpretation of Shakespeare's great protagonist. The production is fast moving, up-close in the intimate Vortex space, and highly visual. Lear with its two 10-minute intermissions is a lengthy evening but it's a memorable one.
Obliged to write short and rate summarily within three days of seeing Lear, I gave it 2.5 on the 5-star scale used by the local arts collective. Within seven days I decided to list it at another Austin arts site as "now playing and recommended." This evening, with two weekends remaining in the run, I say to you, "Go. See it."
Maybe it will help you decide to which century you belong.