Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., March 9, 2001
King Lear: Downfalls of the Rich and Famous
through March 17
Running Time: 2 hrs, 50 min
First, we have to check in. At the desk in the lobby, we're handed a laminated visitor's badge and made to scribble our name on a sign-in sheet. Then we have to pass in front of a security camera. Only then are we allowed into the "boardroom," where the story of Lear will unfold.
This corporate ritual of admission is a doubly smart way to open a production of King Lear set in contemporary times. It brings us into the world of the play, establishing it in terms we recognize intimately. But it also marks us as outsiders in this world. Our presence is monitored. Admittance is something we're granted. This is a way in which modern power manifests itself: The one in power controls who gets in. Access connotes privilege. So, by the time Lear enters and takes his place at the head of the conference table, we've already felt his authority, his prestige. And when he divides his domain among his daughters, it isn't some abstract partitioning of land, it's a relinquishing of influence and control and wealth that we grasp on a personal level. It sets up the tragedy close to home.
Of course, the trick then becomes keeping the tragedy that immediate and personal through Lear's final howl. It's a considerable challenge, but director Robi Polgar and his company in this Public Domain Theatre Company production rise to it, largely sustaining the opening's striking proximity to our lives. Polgar -- a Chronicle Arts listings editor and regular Arts contributor -- serves up an inventive array of contemporary analogs for the outdated characters and customs of Shakespeare's world: Messengers are displaced by cell phones; the map Lear uses to divide his realm is displayed on a titanium Power Book; the rhyming jests and wisdom of Lear's Fool are delivered as rap.
More important, most of Polgar's efforts at updating resonate. When Kent, the loyal knight who is banished by Lear, disguises himself so he can keep serving his king, Polgar has him shed his executive suite suit for the rolled-up sleeves, ring of keys, and plunger of a maintenance man. The choice not only expresses the degree to which Kent is willing to debase himself for his king, it also functions as a witty metaphor for the character: Kent doing Lear's "dirty work," acting as his fix-it man. Moreover, it makes sense as a credible disguise in this modern context. How many of us give a second look to, much less know, the people who clean up after us every day? A custodian is an anonymous figure, visible but invisible. The Public Domain's Lear is rich with such astute choices. If Polgar isn't always as ingenious when it comes to weaponry -- Edgar and Edmund still battle it out with swords, which, effective staging notwithstanding, jangles a bit in this 21st-century setting -- still, on the whole he brings Lear into the present in stylish ways that serve the play.
In a sense, Polgar and company serve Lear the play as diligently as Kent does Lear the king. Too often theatre artists staging a dramatic classic -- especially a Shakespearean classic -- sacrifice narrative to a conceptual take or the work's best-known passages. Here, though, the artists all work in concert to tell the story. The briskly moving scenes portray the dot-com magnate falling faster than a NASDAQ stock. As Lear's scheming daughters, Katherine Catmull (a frosty Goneril) and Jessica Hedrick (a torrid Regan) rebuff their dad and plot their corporate takeover with a brutal efficiency and eye to fashion. In the parallel plot, Scott Daigle has Edmund, Gloucester's bastard son, hoodwink his father and usurp the place of his brother Edgar with the supercilious skill of a junior exec on the way up. The resistance to these machinations is played with feverish intensity: Dan Bisbee's hip-hop Fool tries to buy his king a clue with bitter humor, delivered vehemently; Douglas Taylor's Kent defends Lear's honor with fervent indignation (and an appealing touch of Lone Star grit); and Greg Gondek's Edgar feigns madness and defies his brother with fierceness, like a man haunted by his conscience and desperate to lay his ghosts to rest.
The smooth execution of the concept and facility of the presentation make this saga come across as a most modern story of big business success, familial betrayal, marital infidelity, murder, and madness, like one of those Vanity Fair features in which Dominique Dunne details some dynasty of the rich and famous imploding on itself in decadent and unspeakably nasty ways -- a novel, even refreshing way of looking at this familiar tragedy. However, there's a crucial difference between those stories and this production. Exposés of the ugly side of the beautiful people leave me feeling distant from their subjects, unmoved by their ruinous exploits. This Lear brought me close to its subjects, close enough to feel the beating of their pained hearts. All the players share credit for this, but leading the way is Paul Norton. He keenly expresses Lear's suffering, in narrowed eyes, in clenched fists, in blustery rages. In the mad scenes, he is mercurial, flashing anger, playfulness, cruel jests, and more so quickly and vividly that we feel pity for the deluded Lear. And when his Lear emerges into sanity, he speaks so softly, so fearfully, it pulls at our spirit. His is a potent performance, strong and thoughtful, like so much of this production, and it leaves us understanding Lear's downfall not as some abstract collapse of a flawed ruler, but as a loss of dreams and home and family that we grasp on a personal level. It brings this tragedy, in the end, close to home.