Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: King Lear

Director Bill Rauch cast two actors we admire as King Lear, splitting the grueling 130-show Oregon Shakespeare Festival season between them. We never miss Michael Winters's work in Seattle as well as at OSF if we can help it, and we have enjoyed Jack Willis in the past couple of years that he has been performing here at OSF. When tickets became available, the Weisenheimer secured seats for performances by each actor, and we looked forward to it all year. We were not disappointed.

Asking which Lear was "better" is like knowing two old men with different but fatal ailments and asking who is sicker. We saw two different characters named "King Lear," but each within the bounds of the same story and a cohesive vision for the production by Rauch.

We saw Willis's Lear on our first afternoon here. His Lear was choleric, bombastic, snide, entitled; a hard-drinking, hunt-loving, bull-in-the-china-shop man's man. He was remote from those around him from the start and only became more so as his private demons, including sexual frustration and inadequacy, dragged him further into his personal hell. Willis's interpretation took some risks and stretched the elasticity of the text, to mostly persuasive and effective results. This Lear did not go gently into that dark night. He succumbed with rage and at the end a touching resignation.
Daisuke Tsuji as The Fool and Michael Winters as Lear in
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of King Lear.
OSF photo

Two days later we saw Winters play Lear. This Lear was vulnerable, befuddled; seemed genuinely well-intentioned and surprised, as well as furious, when his "retirement party" didn't go so well; and fought against the darkness closing in with bursts of a range of emotions and attempts to grasp at those around him. This Lear was probably just holding it together and maybe could have continued to do so until the pins were knocked right out from under him and he could not get his balance back despite lurching and pinwheeling his arms to try to right himself. Winters hewed more closely to the text and its ambiguities, especially that balance between flaws of mind, body, and character that must be so challenging for an actor, and crafted that balance brilliantly. This Lear finally fell with heart-bursting anguish.

For the rest of the ensemble playing to these two different men, we thought we detected more wariness and determined loyalty to Willis's Lear; more frustration, affection, and physical interaction with Winters's.
Jack Willis, pictured above, alternated with Michael
Winters in the title role of King Lear. OSF photo.

A moment that exemplifies the differences between these Lears is near the very end: Cordelia and Lear's reunion before they are captured. The line is, "Do not laugh at me, / For, as I am a man, I think this lady / to be my child Cordelia." Willis says this over his shoulder "confidentially" to Kent, and it is endearing and plays for a bit of a laugh. Winters says the line looking directly at Cordelia, with his arms outstretched to her, with aching loss and hope.

The rest of the ensemble is as glorious as the two brilliant actors playing Lear. The two characters I was most interested in are Kent and the Fool. They interact the most with Lear, and are loyal to him even as they see his folly clearly. They are the truth tellers in the play and I find those characters fascinating—especially Kent in his predicament, as he has to dissemble and disguise in order to continue to be true to Lear after telling the truth to him and getting banished.

Daisuke Tsuji was a wonderful Fool; we know he has outstanding clown skills. He's Lear's conscience, needling him, trying to distract him, and trying to call him to a better self when he rages. Tsuji starts the play in a seat as part of the audience, and it was hilarious to watch the people around him get increasingly annoyed as he got increasingly restless and finally burst forth with inappropriately loud and long laughter, just as he got up and joined the action. Armando Durán's Kent was everything I had hoped for from a Kent. He is the counterpoint to Lear, the person who is behaving as a king should but this king doesn't, with a proper understanding of duty, loyalty, his station, and his responsibility to protect.

We've been coming here long enough to know that Vilma Silva and Robin Goodrin Nordli are outstanding actors, and it was a delight to see them so well-matched in the major roles of Goneril and Regan, respectively. They nailed it. Silva's Goneril is a frustrated leader, someone who could have and probably should have been wearing the pants in the family if that had been allowed. As exploitative as she is, you can almost sympathize, certainly understand, her temptation to seize an opportunity to exercise her talents. Nordli's Regan is babied, not too bright, supremely manipulative, usually drunk, and probably a little nuts. In other words, her father's daughter.

There is so much more to a production of a play than the text, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of seeing a play is watching how the artists bring the text to life. There were a number of smart additions to, or interpretations of, the text. For example, there was a lovely bit of symmetry as disloyal son Edmund picked Gloucester's pocket for his keys in order to betray him. Later, faithful son Edgar surreptitiously replaced blind Gloucester's money in his pocket, refusing to accept it for guiding and protecting him. 

One change to the text—well, stage directions anyway—provided an elegant solution to the Fool's disappearance. The text indicates that the Fool and Kent help Lear off the stage in act 3 scene 6, and after this the Fool does not appear again. In this production, Lear accidentally and without noticing mortally wounds the Fool in a tussle as the Fool and Kent attempt to restrain Lear in his frenzy over an imagined Goneril escaping justice. The Fool dies without Kent or Gloucester noticing in their haste to rescue the King; Edgar discovers it which only adds to his horror, and he removes the body at his exit ending the scene. 

As effective as these interpretations and additions were, there were changes to the text that were not so salutary. There were a number of times when a line or word just sounded jarringly wrong, and I found myself thinking "Did Shakespeare really write that?" After the play I looked up all of these moments that I could remember and, it turns out, no, Shakespeare did not write that. Now, I recognize that the text of King Lear is especially problematic (basically two different versions have come down to us). And I'm not such a purist that I cannot abide any fiddling around with the text. Deletions and rearranging the sequence of scenes and speeches are par for the course. However, if you are going change the author's words, there should be a good reason—and you want to be sure your writing is on the level of the author's. Whoever was changing the text in this production is no Shakespeare. And the only reason I can suppose for the changes would be to try to make the language more accessible to today's audience. Just one very small example: Kent is railing against Oswald, Goneril's steward, and threatens to "daub the walls of a jakes with him" after treading him into mortar. In this production, it was "daub the walls of an outhouse with him," which is a startling introduction of American English into the middle of a (mostly) unadapted Shakespeare play. "Jakes" is a fine old word. Armando Durán, playing Kent, is an excellent actor. Did Rauch really think we would not get Kent's meaning? That shows an unjustifiable lack of confidence in his actors, and an unnecessary lack of confidence in the audience. 

We were in the Thomas Theater (which I still think of as the New Theater) in the round, in contemporary time, and the set was beautifully spare and simple, making small details even more effective, such as Lear tearing a map into three unequal portions (the largest intended for Cordelia) and the crumpled pieces of paper reappearing over and over again throughout the play, a tangible reminder of Lear's folly. The scene where Lear is shut out in the storm was marvelously stirring with some flashlights and a fan, all manipulated on stage by actors and stagehands. At OSF, where they have the resources to get fancy, it was delightful to see some good old-fashioned theatrical magic made with the simplest of props and the talent of the cast and crew. The lighting and sound throughout were extremely well done. The design choices helped ensure that there would be little separation, physical or emotional, between us in the audience and the characters on stage. Both productions we were in "terrible seats" (as we overheard an actor from the production describe them), directly, and I mean directly next to the throne set midway up a stairwell from the stage proper to an exit at the top of the theater. A good deal of action, not just entrances and exits, happened on this stairwell, and while it did mean a little bit of craning our necks, we didn't mind. It was worth it to be terrified by Goneril, who was close enough to pluck my eyes out. 

Finally, a wish. I would love to see a production of King Lear that casts the same woman as Cordelia and the Fool. There are relatively few good parts for women anyway (compared to the number of roles for men), and Cordelia really is a crummy part by itself. But playing both Cordelia and the Fool would make it an amazing role, especially for a woman who has terrific clown skills (there are some!). It makes sense logistically. The Fool does not appear until after Cordelia's exit for France, and Cordelia does not appear again until after the Fool mysteriously and permanently vanishes. In fact, knowing that the younger actors played the parts of women and of fools, it seems entirely possible that the role was played by the same boy in Shakespeare's time. It also makes sense artistically, as we the audience recognize the same actor who played Cordelia returning to continue to be the King's conscience and darling in another guise. It would make one of Lear's last lines especially poignant: "And my poor fool is hanged." 


Anonymous said...

...to each their own....you two watched two Lears for the umpteenh time....and at least Sweetie seemed to enjoy the experience....while the Big W again is at a loss for words....

Back at The Manor, Lady N and I watched all 10 episodes of The Newsroom in one sitting....a wonderful experience ... so much better than when we watched each episode on a weekly basis .....

Chalk up another W for Sweetie...

Sweetie the Official Scorer said...

@"Anonymous" ;-) , it's funny, somehow after 20 years of going to theater together, neither of us had seen Lear before this year. So it was fun to come to it with fresh eyes and ears, and at a time of life when we have aging parents. Glad you enjoyed the Newsroom marathon, we might have to check that out...cheers!