A Royal Treat: NWCTC's "King Lear"

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
"King Lear" (at the Shoebox Theater through March 30) is the grandest of Shakespeare's great tragedies, employing a language that marries old testament myth with gripping psychological insight. It's not every actor who can credibly animate its title king, a man so accustomed to sovereign authority his notion of prayer involves interrupting conversations to request torturous curses from the heavens upon those he's conversing with. Northwest Classical Theater Company's wonderful new production, however, is anchored by such an actor, the excellent Ted Rosium, who brings a captivating and affecting blend of the fierce and feeble to his role. "Lear" begins, famously, with the widowed king's decision to abdicate his throne, dividing his kingdom between his three daughters, among whose castles he plans to rotate in his retirement with his private army. He couches the ceremony in a mock contest, instructing the women to out-proclaim each other regarding their love to him, in order to earn bigger shares. Two, Goneril and Regan (the always amazing NWCTC company members Melissa Whitney and Brenan Dwyer) comply, while Lear's youngest, and purported favorite, Cordelia (a fine, but underused, Clara-Liis Hillier) demurs, citing modesty, and is promptly disowned. The scene is dream-like, at once realistic and absurd, and sets the tone for the play. What's most surprising and satisfying about NWCTC's production is how well the play's outsized language and story is transported into the Shoebox Theater's intimate setting. JoAnn Johnson's direction is spare and elegant. Actresses and actors come and go on a nearly propless stage, their words and actions alone conveying the story's mounting dread. The costume design by McKenna Twedt is likewise minimal and perfect, with the lovely, chic modern dress outfits suggesting in simple strokes the characters' stations and the kingdom's values. Unlike many productions, which portray Goneril and Regan as latent villains who turn on their father at first chance, a reading the text supports, Johnson directs their growing impatience more subtly, showing daughters who, while still intimidated by their father's temper, grow before us into their new roles. Dwyer and Whitney each handle these changes wonderfully. This approach, while original, and effective in the moment, becomes problematic as the play progresses, and Regan is soon enthusiastically torturing her father's former advisor Gloucester (a fantastic Gary Powell), and the two daughters are vying maniacally for the love of Gloucester's devious, blood thirsty son Edmund (a captivating Tom Walton), and one wonders what became of their fertile consciences. Lear, the play, centers on generational strife, between Lear and his daughters, and Gloucester and his two sons, Edmund and Edgar. In the latter plot, Edgar falls victim to the scheming of his illegitimate brother's scheming, and is himself disinherited and chased into hiding. Edgar disguises himself as Tom o' Bedlam, a mad beggar in a hovel, who Lear, locked out by his unfeeling daughters finds on a stormy night. It's not the fault of actor Jeffery Arlington, who portrays Edgar, that I find Tom o' Bedlam Shakespeare's most insufferable character, and his scenes with the mad king dull, maudlin and impenetrable. We all have our gripes. The common reading of this play holds that Lear's decision to vacate his throne upsets the natural order, engendering chaos and cruelty, in the form of the torture of Gloucester, whose eyes are gouged out onstage, Tarantino-style. Lear's vacuum makes way for the amoral Edmund's rise, as well, while virtuous characters, like Edgar, and the loyal Kent (a formidable David Sikking) must disguise themselves. While gripping, it can feel a bit schematic, and its anxiety over patriarchy's fragility, a worry likely shared by those who've curated English literature's canon for much of the last few centuries, possibly explains its consistent ranking as Shakespeare's greatest play. The sorrow and chaos that envelope the kingdom following Lear's abdication is interrupted by Cordelia, and the army of her new husband, the king of France, who've come to avenge him. The confusion and treachery in this battle's aftermath lead to the play's epically tragic denouement. While the conclusion doesn't hit with quite the emotional charge it ought to here, it is moving nonetheless. "King Lear" is like a symphony, and to attend a show where all the players are so expert in their parts they bring it to sensuous life, as those in this production do, is an occasion for rejoicing. The stage and sets may be modest at Northwest Classical's new production, but, as usual, the company's achievements are not. "King Lear" Northwest Classical Theater Company at the Shoebox Theater through March 30 http://www.nwctc.org/season.html Photo credit: Jason Maniccia BlogTail_LeelaGinelle new