King Lear | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Body Politic Theatre

After much anticipation--"The first 10 performances sold out!"--James O'Reilly appears as King Lear. He's tall, imposing, and at an age of almost bitter ripeness. His voice is deep and seasoned. No doubt that he looks and sounds the part, but in the opening scene it's hard to tell if he'll go the distance. Later, in act three, in the storm on the heath, will come the moment of truth for both Lear and the actor who dares to play him. So, like any Shakespeare fan who knows, fears, and lusts for what is to come, I temper my anticipation with patience.

At intermission, my patience is intact, but all anticipation has been leeched away. O'Reilly hasn't risen to the challenge. He may look and sound like Lear, but only in the way that an Elvis impersonator looks and sounds like Elvis. You know it's not the King. It would make an impressive audition piece, although in the long run O'Reilly's characterization becomes a treadmill of declamation and gesture. O'Reilly's pacing back and forth across the stage draws less attention to Lear's dispossession than it does to director Terry McCabe's failure to create significant dramatic action. So when Lear shouts, "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks," it's no large deal. Lear is not mad; he's just trying to be heard above the sound effects of "cataracts and hurricanoes."

At the curtain, there was no standing ovation, no protracted applause. But, really, the worst that can be said of this production is that it's mediocre. No one in the cast is embarrassingly bad, at least not by American standards, and when it comes to Shakespeare I rank us somewhere behind Canada. But King Lear, of all Shakespeare's plays, seems most cruelly mocked by mediocrity.

When I consider Terry McCabe's direction, I imagine him on the generic aisle at the supermarket. Here's a box of LEAR. Guess I'll get the king size. What else? Three daughters, different ages. And the Fool, pint-size, of course. Let's see, I'll cut out the words no one understands and, no, no costumes. We can use the leftover Victorian stuff. Good era, that, and it goes well with anything. Is that it? Well, if I forgot anything, I'll make do with some odds and ends off the shelf. All right, ten items or less! I'm outa here.

Although the production is slack in tension, and blocked for little save sight lines and traffic, these are minor points compared to the overwhelming responsibility of coaxing Shakespeare's characters to life. Take Edmund, for instance, the unctuous bastard son of Gloucester. He's a bad guy. So, under McCabe's direction, with Ray Bradford playing Edmund, that's what you get--generic bad guy. What you don't get is anything more than lip service to Edmund's deep resentment toward his father (played by William Norris). Nor is the audience prompted toward any critical assessment of Gloucester, whose arrogance and insensitivity have shaped Edmund. You don't even pity him when he's blinded--"Out, vile jelly!"--much less view it as an ironic unraveling of fate, the wages of unenlightened parenthood. Come to think of it, it's even hard to picture Gloucester and Edmund as father and son. I see them according to their labels: one old fool (capable of being served up as Polonius, or, in a pinch, Oedipus) and one bad guy, young (definitely not reflective enough to pass for Macbeth).

More successful, individual efforts are made by Paul Edwards (as Kent) and Tom Mula (as the Fool). I can't say I've ever understood Kent's devotion to Lear--and Edwards doesn't shed any light on the matter--but at least Edwards makes it appear sincere. So Edwards's performance lends some nobility to Lear. Lear's other constant companion, the Fool, is freshly portrayed by Tom Mula as a sharp but affectionate little smart aleck in a two-piece suit, bowler, and bow tie. The costume suits him somehow, and reminds me of Waiting for Godot, which isn't such a bad association to make with this, Shakespeare's most existential fool. Problem is, Mula just isn't very funny. What with all those arcane puns and wordplay, I believe that a Fool who can make you laugh is as rare as a Lear who can horrify you as much as the thought of your own father's death.

Of the three daughters, my favorite is Regan (played by Morgan McCabe). It's the juiciest of the three roles, and McCabe is particularly effective in the scene when Lear, spurned by Goneril, runs to Regan. Here Regan plays the peacemaker between Goneril and Lear, all the time undermining Lear. She manipulates through finesse, rather than direct confrontation, and McCabe dramatizes this by cringing like a little girl before her father's wrath. Lear gives her good reason too, ripping her bodice open just before he exits into the stormy night--a dubious piece of directorial embroidery not quite justified by the script.

Otherwise, there's not much to commend this production. Many of the production values are, unfortunately, commonplace. The cast, for example, all speak like they made a recent trip to ye olde Shakespearean voice coach. Where do they learn to speak from the back of the throat like that? Did they get that from James Earl Jones? Richard Burton? Dr. Who? Well, at least you can understand them this time. Kerry Fleming's costumes, already mentioned, are sort of Victorian for no apparent reason, with occasional ridiculous touches. Such as Lear's royal cape, cut whole from a bolt of flimsy purple imitation satin, looking like something from a children's play. Or Goneril and Regan's campaign jackets--just the thing for that slightly androgynous, Victorian, paramilitary, Trekkie look. And just for variety--when lighting designer Michael Rourke tires of pools of light amidst the darknes--she resorts to a largely green and pink palette, investing several scenes with the ambience of a Miami disco at closing time, which is as near to madness as this show gets.

Where we pick up such cliches, and why we so often witness (at best) mediocre or (at worst) laughably corrupt productions of Shakespeare, is anyone's guess. Certainly we've always lacked the directors, and the academies necessary to develop both the directors and the actors. The clumsy sword fight between Edgar and Edmund in Lear is only the smallest indication of our overall incompetence. I guess you could argue that we lack the culture that might serve to bring us closer to Shakespeare. Personally, I think we lack faith, in ourselves and in Shakespeare. Our biggest mistake is to think that Shakespeare is all about kings and queens and jesters and not about us. And we're so intimidated as we try to conjure up in some sonorous litany the great ghost of Shakespeare. We would do better to cultivate the greatness already within us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.

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