by William Shakespeare
directed by Rebecca Holderness
Dennis Krausnick with Thomas Brazzle, Caroline Calkins, Kevin G. Coleman, Jonathan Croy, Timothy Douglas, Jonathan Epstein, Kelly Galvin, Zoë Laiz, Peter Macklin, Corinna May, James Read, Eric Sirakian, Brendan Sokler, Enrico Spada, Alex Stewart, Bill Watson, Ryan Winkles, Kristin Wold
This impressive production of King Lear presents something of a challenge to the reviewer. The usual procedure of praising the direction, the sets, the costumes, and the acting—all of which deserve high praise—somehow misses the point. Of course, I found the show gripping, and I gained some important insights into the play, but I think what is unique in this production is the process through which the artists created it and the effect this has on what the audience experiences on stage. Of course I wasn’t there during the rehearsals. I can only extrapolate from what I saw and heard, both in the theater and in a few brief conversations with some members of the cast…and blessings on Shakespeare & Company for making these informal chats possible.
Usually, when one goes to see King Lear, it is a vehicle for some venerated senior actor, an opportunity for us to witness a mature talent interpret the creation of our greatest poet. The focus is on Lear, and all the other characters and their actions orbit around his sun. This was true even in the recent Donmar Warehouse Lear with Derek Jacobi, which had strong supporting cast and was an object lesson in modesty and professionalism. Even small productions which don’t have a great star as Lear still make him overshadow the others. Dennis Krausnick could easily command this sort of central role, and in fact he did, with his imaginative, energetic characterization, but he accomplished this within the framework of Rebecca Holderness’ freshly conceived production, which concentrated on telling the story, and telling it in as vivid a way as possible. I have never seen a Lear with quite so much action in it, but even beyond that, this was a production which gave the other actors a great deal of space in which to develop their characters. Of course Shakespeare himself left nothing out, blurred nothing in his creation of Regan, Goneril, their husbands and all the rest, and this is hardly the first production to do justice to the whole range of characters. However, Holderness is particularly attentive to the decisions and actions of these many independent agents in the state of chaos Lear has created. It is perfectly clear throughout that none of those people act with any sort of coordination, much less community, beginning with the marriage bond, setting off most poignantly the mutuality of the dispossessed: the Clown, Tom/Edgar, and Kent, along with their less capable companions Lear and Gloucester. What follows is, perhaps not intentionally, but powerfully, to my mind, a pitch-black, Hobbesian vision of a world not so much out of joint as out of control. Lear’s sin is to abdicate his divine duty as monarch. Neither Holderness nor her actors attempt to explain why this happens or to clarify any figure’s motivations. Character and situation suffice. Dennis Krausnick’s Lear is energetic, almost in his prime, seemingly. His outbursts of temper and moments of confusion do not seem necessarily to be signs of senility. It is reasonable to assume that they are part of Lear’s rather unsympathetic nature. Command has become ingrained in him over many years, and there is nothing surprising in his tendency to issue arbitrary orders based on arbitrary decisions. Then Lear himself and his court, once he withdraws from power, become a force of disorder in themselves. Goneril degenerates from the somewhat inflexible, but reasonable châtelaine who wishes to maintain order in her household into a brutal monster simply because there is no authority to stop her from doing so.
Much of what I have just observed is easily apparent in a casual reading of the play or in many other productions, unless they have some “message” of their own. What sets this production apart is the way in which the secondary characters are so sharply etched. This is not simply a product of the director’s indications or the collaboration of the director with the actors as only actors. The more mature Shakespeare & Co. actors wear several different hats and cultivate a variety of different specializations. In addition to their present roles, many of them have studied Lear as directors, dramaturgs, or teachers, etc., and that is what gives all of the company’s Shakespeare productions its special stamp. One sees an individual command of each part that goes far beyond what one might see in a traditional production. This is the foundation of the “house style” and Shakespeare & Co., and Rebecca Holderness, who is in her sixth season, was ready to make the most of it. In one recent high-profile production of Richard III, which had some notably weak performances in secondary roles as well as in some of the major ones, it was clear that even the better actors had not thought their parts through by themselves. They were merely speaking their lines to the best of their mixed abilities and following what the director had told them to do.
One especially impressive result of this process, is Timothy Douglas’ treatment of Oswald. Mr. Douglas is especially gifted at communicating a great deal with very little. He gave Goneril’s steward a much larger and more interesting place in the play by filling every moment of his on stage presence with meaning, and Oswald was on stage much more than we are accustomed to in conventional productions. Of course he is silent through much of this, but silence is a major part of of the work of a high servant—it is his greatest virtue. Hence, we see Oswald as an observer of the growing disorder and evil in Goneril’s court, especially of its danger areas. He must map out the chaos to the best of his ability in order to survive, and a survivor is what he is in essence, whether he is doing good or ill. Douglas’ Oswald is no villain, but an amoral agent, who knows the limits of his capabilities. There is no place for such a person to take a stand. The omnipresent Oswald, beyond giving us a feeling for the creepiness of the events around him, did much to tie the scenes in Goneril’s and Regan’s courts together.
When I saw a notably weak Cordelia recently, it occurred to me for the first time, what a small part it is. The actor who plays the role has very little opportunity to make an impression in this all-important role. Feminism aside, it was refreshing to see her as an active, strong participant in the invasion in Act V. In Kelly Galvin’s spirited portrayal she is by no means a sacrificial lamb. In Act I her vexation at her father’s manipulative behavior is palpable, and establishes a strong motivation for her refusal to play along with it. This had a strong preparation in Edmund’s anger at his father’s insensitive, offhand discussion of his bastardy. This production rubs it in with plenty of salt and vinegar. At some moment or other, the audience symphathizes with every one of the characters.
The production is fast-moving and full of action. Rebecca Holderness is a choreographer and has managed all movements accordingly. This doesn’t mean that they strike one particularly artificial. On the contrary, some of the violent events seem spontaneous, even explosive, but they are often stylish. Every inch of the apron stage and bare set are put to use, and the arrangements of the players was especially effective, although every spectator will inevitably experience some moments in which something important is blocked from view. A ladder rising vertically from a round hole in the stage is put to especially effective use.
Holderness decided to set the action sometime in the final decades of Tsarist Russia, “to evoke a time vulnerable to revolution and invasion,” as she states. Fortunately this doesn’t go much beyond costuming, and we soon forget about historical specifics as we become immersed in the moral issues of the play and the feelings they arouse in us. There is really only one non-decorative Russian element, that is, Kent’s accent, when he is in disguise, and to a lesser extent Edgar’s, when he makes his father believe that he is a local peasant. Master actor Jonathan Epstein adopts a coarse-sounding Russian accent as part of his disguise—actually the major part, since the American pronunciation used consistently throughout doesn’t allow for the right sort of class distinction…and it is set in Russia, after all. In lesser hands this might degenerate into caricature, and at moments there is a hint of that, but Epstein manages to convey the loyalty and sympathy of his true identity along with the bluff rustic manners of his assumed persona—and he is one tough muzhik!
Otherwise it’s refreshing to hear American pronunciation consistently used throughout a production of Shakespeare, especially after the Bridge Project inflated the non-issue of British and American English and methods of acting inflated so beyond its true importance, rather to the detriment of their American actors and their two dead playwrights, Chekhov and Shakespeare. I imagine anyone who has read a play or two of Shakespeare in a halfway decent high school must know that the various regional accents his audience heard from the stage of the Globe tended more towards certain American rural dialects, and that the Received Pronunciation still prevalent on stage is founded on convention and nothing else, since the Elizabethans were entirely innocent of the Great Vowel Shift. While it remains very pleasurable to pull out old recordings and films of these plays with the great actors of two generations ago and to savor their many beauties, that is not the only way to speak Shakespeare’s verse, especially since fewer and fewer people speak that way in England or anywhere else. Conforming to the house style at Shakespeare & Co. the primary goal was clarity and expressive force over beauty. In the mouths of the more experienced actors this worked brilliantly. As one became immersed in what they were saying, one could forget what particular variety of English one was hearing. A few of the young actors were admittedly rather heavy and even clumsy in their delivery, but that is the only specific criticism I could make of this intense production. One could only admire the work of these knowledgeable and throughly prepared artists. Corinna May and Kristen Wold were strong as Goneril and Regan respectively, avoiding the usual witchy clichés, and Dennis Croy and Ryan Winkles gave humane, moving performances as Gloucester and Edgar, and so did Kevin G. Coleman as the Fool, who didn’t really play his role for laughs. It is well known that Shakespeare & Co. productions evolve considerably over their runs, and Dennis Krausnick, the masterful Lear, has said that he wants to reinvent his role each night, constantly focusing on different aspects of his lines. (Overall, he has combined psychological consistency at the beginning with classic mad scenes later on.) You can’t really appreciate this impressive production by seeing it only once. I obviously recommend that you go see it, but go again, and keep coming back!