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King Lear

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The Bard is back, and his king is governing the Old Globe Theatre's Festival Stage as if he owns it. With this latest production of Shakespeare's ultimate tragedy, King Lear, the Globe's 75th summer festival season takes the boards by storm with superb performances by a dedicated cast with Robert Foxworth in the title role and Adrian Noble in the titular director's chair.

Every director needs to put a mark on this play. It begs for interpretations. Assuming most of the audience members have seen it before, a director wants to do something different, personal, and unique. Adrian Noble, in his first production opening since assuming the role of Artistic Director of the 2010 Shakespeare Festival, is no different in that way. Yet, he is unique in the ways he put his several marks on William Shakespeare's most important tragedy.

Not all Noble's marks are equal. One is innovative; another is somewhat silly and overblown; and one is simply icky. But this director's way of bringing the elegant Elizabethan language to American playgoer's ears makes up for that one sickening scene and more.

This is Shakespeare sans British accents and affectation, sporting crisp rhythm, staccato enunciation, and all-inclusive intelligibility. That involvement is as it should be, Noble would say. Speaking weeks ago at a special Old Globe promotion for his book, "How to do Shakespeare," Noble traced his fascination with the playwright's work to his 17-year-old self's intoxication with the language, the sound of the words. "You put on the language like a garment," he said. "It fills you from the outside in."

Although cloaked in Shakespearean language, the story of King Lear is not a Bard original. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Celts spun earlier versions of the arrogant high and mighty monarch brought down to pauper's level by his egotism and his ungrateful child heirs. It could be a dark fairy tale whose moral is "What goes around, comes around." Evil abounds amid wars and nature's chaos, but neither evil nor chaos can continue unabated forever.

Shakespeare's plot concerns a king with three daughters, and the tale begins with Lear preparing to retire, dividing his kingdom among his progeny, according to their declarations of love for him. Goneril, the eldest (a regally malevolent Emily Swallow) and Regan , the second (played by Aubrey Saverino as the compliant middle child) , profess their adoration and are amply rewarded. When Cordelia "Although the last, not least," proclaims that she loves him according to her bond, her enraged father disowns her without dowry despite the pleas of his friends, the Earls of Kent (a zany and physical Joseph Marcell) and Gloucester. His favorite daughter, now penniless, is nevertheless claimed by the King of France, who takes her off to be his queen bride.

MFA student Catherine Gowl works the difficult role of Cordelia capably, but she is outshined by her elder sisters, who push her part to a lesser significance than it could be. Robert Foxworth is faultless as Lear, as he moves through the levels of the dying, from the disbelief of an arrogant man to the full-blown rage of a conquered ruler and, ultimately, to the acceptance of an integrated person.

Meanwhile, the wicked, now wealthy, daughters conspire to eliminate the old man from their lives and their kingdoms. Eventually, the deposed monarch will learn who his true friends are. He will learn that redemption is eternally elusive and that its pursuit extracts an extremely high price.

That resolution will take time and the course of nature, after the king and his fool wander from place to place, deprived of protection and sustenance, after the dark and stormy night that is Lear's soul, as well as his environment, brews to a crescendo. To disown your children is a crime against nature, and nature will retaliate.

A parallel plotline involves Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar, the good (mindfully played by Jay Whittaker, whose Poor Tom interpretation is spellbinding) and Edmund, the evil bastard (a deliciously evil Jonno Roberts). Veteran Globe actor, Charles Janasz, captures the complex Earl of Gloucester, perceptive throughout, and, at the end, pitiable without being pathetic. Gloucester, once the king's trusted advisor, is a father who believes the lies of his evil son and banishes the son who truly loves him. In that way, his role duplicates that of Lear, who allows his two wicked daughters to capture his fortune, yet exiles his one true-hearted descendent.

Like his former king, Gloucester, too, will suffer for his ignorance, even being blinded by Edmund and his cohorts, who include Lear's two nefarious daughters.

That particular scene is never easy to watch, but Noble has heightened the violence with an especially gory eye-plucking that culminates with Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (an adept Michael Stewart Allen), holding an eye by its optic nerve before flinging it to the ground. The audible smack as it lands elicited an audience reaction that says it all. Ick. Note to director: Gruesome effects are not as cool on stage as in film.

Innovation, however, is always welcome. Herein lies the rubbing out of Lear's fool (played with spot on comic and tragic timing by Bruce Turk), whose disappearance in Act III has long been a subject of critical speculation. Is the fool symbolic of his master's alter ego, no longer needed when Lear begins to integrate his troubled psyche? Or, is the fool simply unnecessary after the appearance of Poor Tom, Edmund's naked persona, whose rants contain a fool's wisdom?

Usually, the director lets the fool simply slip away after he utters his last line, "And I'll go to bed at noon." In Noble's novel interpretation, Lear murders his fool, madly mistaking him for Regan, as he wonders aloud "...what breeds about her heart."

What breeds is a burgeoning English army, with Regan, Goneril and Edmund in the lead, ready to battle France, now united behind Lear and Cordelia. What is ill-conceived are the distracting Nazi-like uniforms, worn by the sisters, as well as by their armies. This costuming is overblown, reaching too far to make a point about the warring forces of good and evil.

The battle ensues, but the scene highlights the two sisters' rivalry for Edmund's affections. A manipulator to the end, Edmund refuses to commit to either, conniving instead to take one of them and his father's title, too.

The final scenes offer a typical Shakespearean turn-about. Edmund learns that his plots were foiled by his mistresses' murder-suicide. Edgar's reappearance gives him a change of heart, but Edmund's attempt at redemption comes too late.

So, too, does Lear's. His realization and the reunion with Cordelia offer him only a brief respite from the chaos wrought by his arrogance. Before he dies, he learns that all his daughters are dead, the youngest murdered in her cell. The final tableau reveals the now lowly king pitifully attempting to revive his child as he takes his last breath.

Yet, hope lives in Edgar, a symbol of the potential for good and humility to triumph, eventually, and at great cost, over evil and arrogance. Even so, what was done cannot be undone, as Edgar's last speech proclaims. The burden has been shifted, not purged. "...we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long."

Long live "King Lear," a magnificent play, especially in this production, well-wrought and worthy of both its king and its director.

William Shakespeare's King Lear plays in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew and Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III through September 23. Most performances on the Old Globe Lowell Davies Festival outdoor stage are at 8 pm, Tues-Sun. Tickets are $29-$78. Reservations at (619) 23-GLOBE or www.TheOldGlobe.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.