Even now, 400 years after his death, William Shakespeare is still the king of family dysfunction: orphaned and switched-at-birth children, suicides, murderous revenge plots, mental illness, inappropriate parent-child relations …
In my opinion, King Lear, now in production at Goodluck Macbeth, is Shakespeare’s masterwork in terms of how eff-ed up it is.
King Lear (John Blomberg) gathers together his three daughters. Age is taking its toll, and he’s ready to turn over his kingdom—but who among them is most deserving?
“Who loves me the most?” he asks his three daughters.
His eldest, Goneril (Heather Willson-Eaton), can play this game. She and her husband, the Duke of Albany (Evan Heiser), are rewarded for their excessive flattery with a large parcel of land.
Daughter number two, Regan (Ashley Marie James), is equal to the task, and Lear, satisfied with her answer, awards Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Dirk Miller), a piece of land equally lovely.
Now Lear turns to his youngest, Cordelia (Annakarina De La Torre-Fennell), expecting a similar declaration. But Cordelia won’t play this sick game. She loves her father in accordance with their bond, no more or less.
Pissed, Lear gives her nothing. She leaves the kingdom empty-handed, an enemy to her father and sisters, and marries the King of France (Cody Hamilton).
Left to their own devices, Goneril and Regan denigrate their father and strip him of any remaining power. Lear is cast out, left to wander the heath in a storm with only his fool (Scott Rankin) for company.
As if that weren’t messed up enough, we also have the Earl of Gloucester (Jon Lutz). He has two sons, Edgar (Gregory Klino), a fine, upstanding man, and Edmund (Robert Zellers), Gloucester’s bastard son who holds none of the rank or respect of his brother. Edmund concocts a plot to take what he feels is rightfully his. He convinces Gloucester that Edgar intends him harm and must be ejected from the kingdom, then seduces both Goneril and Regan in a play for power.
Gloucester falls victim to an act of violence that’ll have you squirming in your seat, then is thrown out on his ass to join Lear in the storm.
Like any good Shakespearean tragedy, life sucks, and just when you think things must start looking up, they get worse. Also, there’s a lot of dying. It all goes to show that greed—for power, for money, for love—leads to misery, and blindness—literal or figurative—to madness. It’s a supremely disturbing story, executed beautifully by the GLM cast.
Director Joe Atack has revised this work as the life of Ivan the Terrible, the 16th century Russian tsar whose life had surprising parallels to King Lear’s: madness and paranoia, greedy children, a propensity to tantrums. The setting is a stark, wintry Russia. The authentic costumes and jewelry are stunning in their beauty and ornateness.
Atack’s revision also plays a bit with the casting. Lear’s trusted adviser, the Earl of Kent, is now Lady Kent, played by Kate Atack. This change gives new perspective to the story and Kent’s role in Lear’s life.
The performances are solid across the board, from Blomberg’s convincing portrayal of Lear, a man whose miseries age him before our eyes to Willson-Eaton and James as the beguilingly evil Goneril and Regan, and from Atack as Lear’s funny and comforting only friend to Zellers, who is surprisingly funny as the bastard Edmund, even as he plots his misdeeds.
The unique staging immerses viewers in the action. I reluctantly had to sit up front on a sold-out opening night, but having done it, I’d now recommend it. King Lear is a haunting journey into madness and evil, and you’ll want to see every miserable moment up close.