Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Margin Notes: King Lear

Kitty Mortland as King Lear. Photo by Joseph Sebring.

Seen on: Saturday, 12/10/16.
My grade: B-.

Plot and Background
King Lear, eyeing retirement, announces that she will divide her kingdom equally among her three daughters, once they have sufficiently declared their love for her. When her beloved youngest, Cordelia, cannot bring herself to the same ornate oration as her fawning sisters, Goneril and Regan, Lear disinherits and banishes her. Intending to split her time between visiting her two remaining daughters, Lear soon finds herself instead the unwelcome houseguest of both, and goes mad in the storm, as old kings often do. Meanwhile, advisor Gloucester's bastard son Edmund frames his legitimate brother Edgar for attempted murder, and seduces both Goneril and Regan. It all comes to a head: the good end unhappily, the bad end even more unhappily, and I've left out the Fool, the blinding, and everyone going around in disguise. King Lear is presented by What Dreams May Co., in partnership with Queens Shakespeare Inc., two companies dedicated to exploring classical work.

What I Knew Beforehand,
and Disclosure
I'd seen Derek Jacobi's King Lear at BAM a few years back and came away with an excellent appreciation for the play, though I haven't actually sat down to read the script. I'm friends with director Emily C. A. Snyder, as well as several cast members.


Play: In her director's note, Emily C. A. Snyder talks about the necessity for these characters to "unbecome" themselves - to break out of their prescribed identities of title and duty and reduce to their smallest, truest selves. This narrative is articulated most clearly in the title character, who begins the play all pomp and formality, but as she descends into madness - as she (literally) lets her hair down - we see at last the loving parent, the lonesome friend, the repentant ruler searching desperately for an emotional lodestone. In other characters, such as Goneril, Regan, and Edmund, this reduction reveals the petty bitterness beneath filial protestations. And in others, like Albany, Edgar, and Kent, it allows them to reveal their better nature, the heroes within that might have kept to the benches had a war not begun. While this narrative becomes easier to extrapolate now, behind the comfort of my keyboard, it was not always as clear in performance. Individual moments of transition and transformation were sometimes muddied, and the amorphous use of the intimate space meant I couldn't always place where we were. The play's strongest moments come as the King declines further and further; though King Lear is full of battle and bombast, this production finds its strength as its characters approach closer to their quiet, inner humanity.

Cast: Kitty Mortland's Lear begins as a stoic creature, but a relaxed one - she is a king accustomed to getting her own way, and does not take kindly to being thwarted. As defiance is chased with further grosser insults, she begins to crumble and crack, and reveals an almost child-like sweetness as she declines further and further into madness. Mortland's excellent command of both the language and her instrument make this transition not only seamless but inevitable. As her two conniving daughters Goneril and Regan, Becca Schneider and Christina Sheehan deftly avoid the trappings of melodrama villains and instead fight desperately - and viciously - to hold onto what little ground they possess. If we weren't siding with our titular character, we might forget they are the antagonists of the piece. Samantha Leigh brings an earnest sweetness and gravity to Cordelia, but it is as the Fool that she has the most fun, cantering round the space, teasing and protecting her king. Jonathan Emerson's wide-eyed Edgar is as touchingly bewildered by the political whirligig around him as William Gwyn's crafty Edmund and Chris Rivera's smirking Cornwall are laconic masters of it.

Design: There's something eminently charming about the all-hands-on-deck approach to the design here, with nearly everyone in the production wearing at least one hat. It gives the show a coherent and integrated approach, as Jonathan Emerson's and Joseph Sebring's set - walls of bare branches and dead vines, a sign of the threatening wilderness waiting to encroach on the court - aligns with Emerson's lighting to give us the night sky as the storm wails around Lear (this lighting effect is strong, though the coverage of the space and the actors' faces during scenes is not always what it should be). In defiance of the decaying court and the dead of nature in deep winter, Chris Rivera's costumes are sumptuously hued, with a clear color palate to assist the audience when actors are doubling and tripling up on roles (also if anyone tries to tell me Cordelia's dress wasn't a nod to Buffy's "Prophecy Girl" dress, they're wrong and I'll tell them they're wrong). And though the final battle is of course when people begin dying at breakneck speed, there is still a sense of joy in all the cast as they perform Katrina Art's fight choreography.


Running: Now playing at John DeSotelle Studio (What Dreams May Co. in partnership with Queens Shakespeare) - Opened: December 8, 2016. Closing: December 17, 2016.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 45 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Emily C. A. Snyder
Designers:  Jonathan Emerson and Joseph Sebring (Set), Chris Rivera (Costume), Jonathan Emerson (Lighting), Emily C. A. Snyder (Sound), Katrina Art (Fight Choreographer).
Cast: Katrina Art, Jennifer Carter, Jonathan Emerson, William Gwyn, Erik LaPoint, Samantha Leigh, Kitty Mortland, Everett O'Neil, Chris Rivera, Alexi Sargeant, Becca Schneider, Christina Sheehan.

Becca Schneider and Christina Sheehan as Goneril and Regan.
Photo by Joseph Sebring.

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