A tragedy is literally defined as a play dealing with great suffering, destruction and distress and having an unhappy ending, especially one that concerns the downfall of the main character. William Shakespeare’s King Lear — considered by many, including Nasrullah Mambrol of the Literary Theory and Criticism Journal to be the epitome of theatrical tragedy. Mambrol writes in his July 2020 article “Analysis of William Shakespeare’s King Lear,” that “(T)he notion that King Lear is Shakespeare’s (and by implication drama’s) greatest play is certainly debatable, but consensus in its favor has gradually coalesced over the centuries since its first performance around 1606.”
Or as 18th Century essayist and critic Samuel Johnson claimed regarding King Lear:
“There is perhaps no play which keeps the attention so strongly fixed; which so much agitates our passions and interests our curiosity. The artful involutions of distinct interests, the striking opposition of contrary characters, the sudden changes of fortune, and the quick succession of events, fill the mind with a perpetual tumult of indignation, pity, and hope. There is no scene which does not contribute to the aggravation of the distress or conduct of the action, and scarce a line which does not conduce to the progress of the scene. So powerful is the current of the poet’s imagination that the mind, which once ventures within it, is hurried irresistibly along.”
What an awful lot to live up to in a live theater production; nevertheless, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company gives it a royal effort. Gory and visceral, King Lear is a long story, (Shakespeare’s sixth longest, consisting of 26,145 words) with a cast of twenty-two characters, played by an ensemble of fifteen actors. Compounded by archaic language and many plot twists, Lear is likely, without attentive direction and precision acting, to become unwieldy; as this production sometimes does.
With disciplined direction by Holly Leveque, she poses this argument in the production’s program: “What unites us in this existence is a Celebration of Life, Grief, and Death. How can you prepare the ones you love for when they lose you? A powerful royal family’s reign and legacy is thrown into chaos as power and greed poison and lead them to a legacy lost. The dream of a circle of life is presented at the beginning of the play, with Lear wanting someone to continue his legacy. In the end, past faults are forgiven and family is reunited. Reconciliation is where this tragic tale ends, with the survivors left to pick up the pieces, to somehow start a new beginning and carry on the kingdom.”
This is also an accurate encapsulation of the play. King Lear, in all his need for flattery and in a state of sad deterioration, is powerfully portrayed by Ari Agabian. Mr. Agabian nails the monarch’s monologues wherein he presumes to divide his kingdom between his three daughters based on the love and devotion they proclaim for him.
Two daughters, Regan and Goneril (credibility performed by Aura Rico and Jessica Wienecke, respectively) are onto their father’s fatal flaw, heaping mounds of flattery on the old man in order to receive their proportion of Lear’s kingdom. Even though the words ring with perfunctory praise and overblown adulation, the King’s ego cannot resist acquiescing to the false flattery of these two deceptive daughters. They and their husbands (Dylan J. Sampson as Duke of Albany and Andrew Tyrell-Smith as Duke of Cornwall) receive sizable portions of the vast kingdom.
Cordelia, the third daughter (played with subtlety by Jahnavi Aithal) refuses to exaggerate her feelings for her father. In response to the King’s egotistical request, Cordelia says “Nothing my lord.” Startled, Lear inquires, “Nothing?” In retort the King admonishes, “Nothing will come of nothing,” demanding that she “Speak again.”
The Long Beach Shakespeare Company makes much with little more than dedicated theater artists and a great play, of which King Lear is considered top tier. It’s inspiring to be amidst such artistic commitment and creative generosity. Nothing will come of not seeing this epic tragedy played out on the stage of the Long Beach Shakespeare Company. See it while you can.
What: King Lear runs from February 24 – March 11on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m.
Where: Helen Borges Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach, 90807
How: Call (562)997-1494 or visit lbshakespeare.org
Again, Samson, Rico. Photo courtesy Long Beach Shakespeare Company