King Lear

by John Stoltenberg

Director Leslie Jacobson has book-ended Shakespeare’s dark tragedy King Lear with lyrical and lovingly-lit tableaux of the mad king’s court as if in a fairy-tale photo op—Lear regal on his throne, his daughters adoring at his feet, his subjects surrounding him smiling ear to ear. These are before-and-happily-ever-after snapshots that would be perfect for a royal post on Instagram. We hear the dulcet-toned voice of a Troubadour (Andrew Flurer) singing traditional English folk tunes (he kicks off this love-in with “Greensleeves”). He is nicely accompanied by a clown-like guitar player (John Preuessner, who also plays The Fool). And the two are joined by a chorale of the full cast singing in joyful harmony. The improbable upshot is a prelude and postlude to the production that spliced together would make a feel-good YouTube vid.

What’s up with this show? Is it tragic fate or a merry fête?

Turns out, it’s both.

The occasion is not only as Shakespeare would have it: Lear’s kingdom mismanagement, his peevish misapportionment of it among his three daughters, his descent into dementia, his woeful demise, et cetera.

The occasion is also a celebratory career commemoration of the actor who’s playing Lear, Alan Wade. Retiring after 40 years playing a leading role in founding, running, and professoring in The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance, Wade has opted for no easy-peasy swan song.  He has chosen to scale the Mount Everest end-of-life role of Lear—and in a production evidently mounted to showcase his fearless farewell, he makes it to some impressive heights.

For instance in the first scene—where Lear is divvying up his kingdom between his two mendacious daughters Goneril (Anna Coughlin) and Regan (Renee Glanville) and disinheriting his guileless one Cordelia (Julia Barrett)—things go along calmly for a while. Lear appears a sane man, a monarch worthy of respect. Then suddenly there’s a stark bright light cue and blitzy sound effect and Lear goes temporarily insane, off his rocker, seething with spitting rage. It happens again. Then again. And immediately we recognize the mo of an unhinged narcissist.

Joining Wade in the play’s other messed-up paterfamilias role, Earl of Gloucester, is Rick Foucheux. It is an arresting performance every bit as not-to-be-missed as his many others for the past 35 years. In real life Foucheux too is nearing a culmination of his career. In what reportedly will be his last role on stage, he will appear  as Lear this spring in Avant Bard’s King Lear, directed by Tom Prewitt. Here in King Lear at GW, where he is an adjunct member of the theater faculty, he not only commands the stage—his each speech of Gloucester’s soars—he also shares the stage with younger, far less experienced actors in an extraordinarily egalitarian way.

So it was that taken together the scenes between Gloucester and his scheming gold-digger son Edmund (an absorbing Kent-Harris Repass) and the scenes between Gloucester and his lovingly loyal son Edgar (a compelling Will Low) provided the most interesting moments in the production. Low gives a delightfully nimble performance disguised as “Poor Tom,” and by the end Low’s expression of Edgar’s sorrow over losing his father offers the production’s most moving moment—not least because we remember Foucheux’s Gloucester with similar tenderness.

Director Jacobson, who is also a professor at GW, writes in her program note about compassion between the generations, echoing the teacher/student relationship that in this production informs the audience/actor connection.

I find this play a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Both the older generation (Lear, Gloucester, Kent, and Fool) and the younger generation (Cordelia, Edgar, and Albany) are vulnerable. Still, none of these characters lose their humanity. In the depths of their suffering, each is capable of humor, compassion, loyalty, generosity, and forgiveness.

This conviction was well displayed in Lear’s embrace of his daughter Cordelia as they go to prison. And together Foucheux and Low made the suicide-fail cliff scene work with enormous empathy.

King Lear would likely mean something quite else were the whole cast the age of the younger actors in this production (though a 23-year-old did once play the title role for the RSC!). Thus several actors who are agemates of Wade and Foucheux help anchor the cast generationally: In addition to Preussner as the Fool, they are Roy Barber as Lear’s advisor the Earl of Kent and Marc Albert as Goneril’s servant Oswald.

Accordingly the youthful contingent give  the script diligent attention: Besides the daughters three, they are Tommy Martin as Goneril’s husband Duke of Albany, Delanté Fludd as Regan’s husband Duke of Cornwall,  Connor Driscoll as Duke of Bergundy who opts out of marrying the dowry-less Cordelia,  and Ryan Cureton as King of France who weds her instead.

The printed program sets the time as “Ancient Briton and Now” and the place as “The British Isles and the Betts Theatre,” and that classic/contemporary mashup is well carried through in the stagecraft. Scenic Designer Bradley Sabelli paints on the backdrop and stage floor an illustration of the British Isles that looks almost cartoonlike, puffy like yeasty dough. Stagehands in black identify the shifts in locale by propping up various emblematic banners (designed, I surmise, by Properties Master Jennifer Sheetz).

Lighting Designer David Ghatan, besides highlighting Lear’s rants in the first scene, creates some lovely mottled looks on stage and catches all the fast action that takes place in the theater aisles. Sound Designer Katy Fields, besides amping up those rants, punctuates the plot with trumpets and other sound cues called for by the Bard. And Costume Designer Cheryl Yancey pulls off the neat trick of having the cast wear fancy faux-period costume pieces over what might be the actors’ rehearsal clothes. (The night I saw the show, the cast seemed a little uncertain with Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba’s moves; still there were gestures that made me jump.)

I did not realize till the end how artfully this production frames the notoriously downer King Lear as both a fond tribute to a particular actor/academic and a warmly gift-wrapped experience for the young cast and their attentive audience.  But now you know before you go.

Running Time: Three hours 5 minutes, including one intermission.

King Lear plays through this Sunday, April 2, 2017, presented by The George Washington University Department of Theatre and Dance at The George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre, in the Marvin Center – 800 21st Street, in Washington, DC.  For tickets, buy them at the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre’s box office, or call (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.

Note:  Renee Glanville, who is Deaf, signs her performance as Regan with eloquent animation while other actors interpret for her. The complete performance Saturday, April 1, will be ASL interpreted.

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