Theater Review: 'King Lear,' Northern Stage | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Theater Review: 'King Lear,' Northern Stage


Published January 29, 2020 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 3, 2020 at 9:40 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Kata Sasvari
  • Jamie Horton

In the Northern Stage production of King Lear, sound tells the story of armies clashing, and light makes a storm feel like the world's end. Those immense theatrical effects are no more powerful than William Shakespeare's words performed by an exceptional group of actors. Director Stephen Brown-Fried uses a few physical surprises but makes the actors and text the centerpiece.

Jamie Horton is riveting as Lear, conveying the "crawl toward death" as personal and political devastation. Lear is by turns irrational, boorish, sentimental, furious, daring, terrified and grieving. Horton moves fluidly through psychological changes, investing each mood with stunning legibility.

The play is about aging, but also succession and the void a departing monarch leaves in his people, his heirs and himself. When Lear faces his own mortality and the future of his kingdom without him, the reflection makes him not wise but intemperate. He gathers his three daughters to divide the realm among them, but first they must profess their love to him. Imperial to the end, he wants worship.

Scenic designer Bill Clarke drapes the stage in massive gold banners imprinted with Lear's crowned and unsmiling face. On delicate gold chairs, the daughters and court gather to see Lear's map of the kingdom. Goneril secures her share, which will be managed by her husband, the Duke of Albany, with easy flattery. Regan does the same, on behalf of the Duke of Cornwall. But Cordelia, Lear's youngest and favorite daughter, can't bring herself to spout adulation about the father she loves.

For this she's banished, and so begins Lear's descent into bitterness, madness and misery. Regan and Goneril have their own selfish ambitions and little love for their father once he takes to visiting them with a horde of loutish soldiers. Lear now sees himself as alone, his empire shattered and his life nearing its end.

Another family is also wrestling with power. Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, has a plan to usurp his brother Edgar. This production casts a woman as Gloucester; Edmund tricks his mother into believing Edgar plans to take over the estate and goads her into declaring her son an outlaw. Edmund's next flourish is to convince Edgar to go on the run and to induce Cornwall and Regan to consider Gloucester an enemy. Edmund unleashes chaos and brutality and smiles at the sight of it.

Lear embodies the ruin of his kingdom as he stands on a heath in a raging storm. Sound designer Kate Marvin and lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz produce something more than thunder and lightning: They make nature inspire awe. The theater seems to shake, and Lear becomes a puny figure howling against his daughters.

The production features nontraditional casting, with people of color in major roles and women playing male characters. The effect is liberating, for actors signal their family relationship through performance, not appearance. Casting based on an actor's ability to play a role, not assumptions about a character's race, ethnicity or gender, underlines the breadth of Shakespeare's insight about humanity.

As freeing as it is to watch a black Edmund with a white half-brother Edgar, the production does have to contort the text to accommodate a female Gloucester, the mother of the two. Edmund's motivation is defying the social stigma of being a bastard son, a drive that's dimmed by having a mother in power and a father who's irrelevant. And the production loses the elegant parallel of Lear and Gloucester as two fathers who contemplate children as imperfect legacies.

But the strength of the performances makes such issues unimportant. The entire company, including four young performers as an all-purpose ensemble of courtiers and soldiers, makes vivid every moment in the play. The secret of conveying Shakespeare's language to an audience is finding actors who convey its meaning to each other. This company's exchanges blaze with emotional clarity and dramatic surprise.

Horton's portrayal of Lear's inner life is nuanced and mesmerizing. Lear first appears with the stillness and power of a king, but his majesty crumbles as he surrenders to the winds of a storm and later reunites, too briefly, with Cordelia. Horton lives Lear's moods, soaring to each emotional state on the hidden wings of a masterful performance.

Cassandra Bissell, as Goneril, and Jolly Abraham, as Regan, are bold power brokers with quiet reserves of cruelty. They convey their own rivalry with subtle touches, such as stiffening a shoulder or casting a scornful gaze.

Stella Asa gives Cordelia the bright beauty of a moral center, and Cherene Snow invests the Earl of Kent with the high loyalty that surpasses personal gain. Jon Norman Schneider is light and quirky as the Fool, and Max Hunter plays a functionary with the dismissive self-importance of a fierce political operative.

As Cornwall, Ben Beckley lunges from statesman to brutal authoritarian. Rajesh Bose, as Albany, gently registers the moral shock that leaves audiences with a straw of hope at the end.

Damian Thompson plays Edmund as a brilliant strategist, devoid of compassion but full of youthful genius. With a proud grin, Thompson tunes Edmund's villainy to the same signal that allows today's technocrats to justify themselves. As Edgar, Robert David Grant shines in his feigned madman guise, scuttling in a crouch to survive a hostile world.

Starla Benford inhabits Gloucester with a commanding presence. Her powerful performance carries the character from trusted courtier to suicidal outcast, and she makes the descent moving by never relinquishing moral certainty.

Shakespeare's rich characters invite interpretation from almost any vantage point. This production gives weight to the political struggle, including the violence when an old order gives way to youth. But the essence of the play is loss and the flicker of understanding that follows it. This superb production kindles that flame in a windswept world.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Royal Treatment | Theater review: King Lear, Northern Stage"

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