‘King Lear’ at The Guthrie

By Colleen Steppa, Theater Reviewer

Heavy on the patricide, King Lear has everything you love in Shakespeare’s dramas – sudden storms at the exact onset of insanity, florid insults, knife fights, disguises, and best of all, characters who loudly announce their deaths in verbal languishings of “I die!” The trapdoor is well-used as depressed people are repeatedly trying to throw themselves in holes.

This script is notable for its widespread use of colorful insults, like this nugget of fatherly love from Lear to his daughter:

“Dry up in her the organs of increase;

And from her derogate body never spring

A babe to honour her! If she must teem,

Create her child of spleen; that it may live,

And be a thwart disnatured torment to her!”

Lear’s grandiosity and need to surround himself with yes-men as he descends into madness, lashing out at whoever dares to oppose him may carry a relevant message for our current political climate.  Rohan Preston of the Star Tribune comments that “director Joseph Haj does not overtly call attention to the contemporary echoes that suffuse Shakespeare’s
tragedy. He doesn’t need to.”

One unsatisfactory element of this production was characters speaking while turned away from the audience, which is (rightfully!) a cardinal sin in theater.  J.C. Cutler’s Kent was particularly hard to hear, which is unfortunate since he delivers the best zingers in the show.

Some of the more violent scenes in the show had more camp than seriousness – there is a bit of bloodiness involving a spoon and a shoe.  Joseph Haj seems to have made a conscious choice to accentuate some of the bizarre humor that cuts through Lear.  Other wacky scenes include a prince-turned beggar/Gollum impersonator tricking his blind father into botched suicide to reaffirm the beauty of life. The violence springs up unexpectedly, sometimes comically, and knives were chosen to replace what were probably swords in the original so get ready for some West-Side-Story-style blade drama.  Edmund does a fine bit of dancing with himself and his lengthy oration on bastards and astronomy is one for the ages.

The only thing more fabulous than the drawn-out Shakespearean deaths were the parade of furs sported by Regan and Goneril.  Many minks and ermines were harmed in the making of this production, with lots of quick changes. Costuming in the style of the 1940s era also echoes some political undertones apparent in directorial choices, particularly with the military garb.

The acoustics combined with a complex plot may make you wish you reviewed some Sparknotes beforehand.  In the end, all you need to remember is everyone is trying to kill their dad or vaguely threatening to put him in an old folks home. The aged king does endure quite a bit a lot of elder-bashing.  Maybe it’s deserved?  Lear does kill his longtime companion for seemingly no other reason than being cranky and needing a nap. He also tends to whine in laments like, “I am a man, More sinn’d against than sinning.”  Whatever your opinion of Lear, go home and give your dad a hug.

King Lear is directed by Joseph Haj, Stephen Yoakam and Nathanial Fuller alternate as Lears depending on performance date.  The show runs until April 2nd with special performances with discussion sessions on these dates:

Sunday, February 19 at 1 p.m.

Tuesday, February 21 at 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, February 26 at 1 p.m.

Saturday, March 4 at 1 p.m.

Saturday, March 18 at 1 p.m.

Tickets cost between $29 to $77 depending on performance time and seating.  See the Guthrie’s website for showtimes and to purchase tickets, here: http://www.guthrietheater.org/plays_events/plays/king_lear

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