Reviewed by Judy Richter
William Shakespeare's "King Lear" gets the royal treatment in the California Shakespeare Theater production directed by Lisa Peterson. This tragic story of a king who decides to retire and divide his realm among his three daughters in order to avoid strife features memorable individual and ensemble performances.
Peterson and her design team -- Rachel Hauck for the set, Meg Neville for costumes, Alexander V. Nichols for lighting and Paul James Prendergast for music and sound -- set the tragedy in the late 1920s, just before the Great Depression. Vertical girders with a few horizontal ones for catwalks dominate one side of the open-air stage. On the other side is a series of barrels that complement the industrial setting and serve other purposes such as sound effects during the storm scene. Ragged beggars lurk in the background as the smartly dressed royal entourage arrives at Lear's palace to hear his news. One is reminded of them later in the storm scene when Lear (Jeffrey DeMunn) -- in a flash of insight -- prays for the "poor naked wretches, wheresoe'er you are." Taking his royalty and privilege for granted in the past, he had never been aware of or thought about such people.
Shakespeare provides plenty of foreshadowing of his own. During the scene with Lear and his daughters, the king's loyal friend, the Earl of Kent (Andy Murray), dismayed at Lear's rashness, calls the king mad and advises him, "See better, Lear." Themes of sight and madness recur throughout the play, as do the word "nothing" and variations on the word "nature." With glasses and white hair and beard belying his erect posture and his initial energy, DeMunn seems every inch the king. He also makes Lear's foolishness and vanity apparent as he reproaches and banishes his beloved youngest daughter, Cordelia (a stalwart Sarah Nealis) for failing to flatter him as his other two daughters, Goneril (Delia MacDougall) and Regan (Julie Eccles), had done. His anger and dismay at Goneril and Regan's subsequent mistreatment of him begin to open his eyes to how wrong he was.
In an almost parallel subplot, the Earl of Gloucester (the excellent James Carpenter) is easily duped by his evil son, the bastard Edmund (Ravi Kapoor) into believing that his virtuous elder son, Edgar (Erik Lochtefeld), plans to kill him. For his part, Edgar naively buys into Edmund's plot and flees, disguising himself as a near-naked madman, Tom of Bedlam, and gaining stature through his experiences. Gloucester literally loses his eyes at the hands of Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (L. Peter Callender), in a bloody scene that ends the long first half. (Breaking there gave the stage crew a chance to wipe up the stage during intermission.) Except for Kapoor, who seemed uncomfortable with Shakespearean diction but who seemed to understand his character, the cast is superb. Besides those already named, they include Andrew Hurteau as the Duke of Albany, Goneril's husband; Liam Vincent as the King of France and as Oswald, Goneril's steward, and Anthony Fusco as the melancholy Fool, who, along with Kent, clearly sees Lear's folly.
"Lear" requires a great performance by the lead actor as well as the other principals. This absorbing production meets that test.