Family tragedy explodes across a looming stage in the Studio Theatre as the Beck Center for the Arts presents William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, running now through June 30, 2019.
For those not familiar with the story: an aging Lear (played by Robert Hawkes) decides to split up his lands amongst his three daughters: Regan (played by Lisa Louise Langford), Goneril (played by Julia Kolibab), and Cordelia (played by Danyel Renee Geddie). Before he does so, he asks each of them to proclaim how much she loves him, with beautifully loquacious results from Regan and Goneril. However, Cordelia (the youngest, and the King’s favorite) believes that throwing flattery at her father is not necessary to claim what is hers, so she expresses her answer without any flair or BS. Enraged, Lear banishes her away to marry the King of France (played by Tyler Collins). In an attempt to help matters, Kent (played by David Hansen) advises Lear to reconsider – for which he gets banished, as well.
Also wrapped up in turmoil is Gloucester (played by Anne McEvoy), who is being mislead by her bastard son, Edmund (played by Daniel Telford). He wants to take away the lands that should be inherited by Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar (played by James Rankin), with a cruel plot of trickery and deceit. It is interesting to note that Gloucester is traditionally a male character. However, the strength of McEvoy’s performance gives her a well-earned opportunity, as director Eric Schmiedl has successfully flipped this “father” character into a “mother” dynamic.
The show is lengthy – 1 hr and 30 minutes for the first act, and 54 minutes for the second act. With a long exposition, the first act is a wordy build-up that sometimes feels slow and hollow. However, the actors feel like they gain a bit more depth of character and intention in act two, which helps with the pacing and eventual resolution. There is plenty of betrayal, backstabbing and greed to go around for everyone, it seems.
Production standouts include Rankin as Edgar, and Jeffrey Allen as the Fool. Rankin has a unique layering to his character, as Edgar goes from dutiful son to a disguised beggar man. His scene leading Gloucester to the cliff (from where Gloucester intends to jump) is heartbreaking, and we feel as much for him as we do for the wronged, suffering Gloucester. Rankin and McEvoy have a wonderful onstage bond. Jeffrey Allen is a breath of fresh air as the Fool – a loyal and interesting fellow. He speaks truth and is constant at the King’s side – Allen and Hawkes play well with one another.
Two very interesting moments to note are at the very beginning and at the very ending of the show. The cast starts on stage together, with each actor then separately approaching a tray and selecting an item from it. They individually don items such as a hat, a scarf, a crown – symbolizing that they are putting on their characters, and that the journey is about to begin. Conversely, at the end of the play each character removes an item from their person to put back on the tray, closing the story. It is a unique and effective directorial choice by Schmiedl.
Despite a powerhouse cast, the wordy text isn’t an easy listen, nor is the performance made any livelier by the design team. The unadorned, black one-unit set (design by Walter Boswell) is starkly lit and contains many dark, shadowy patches (design by Trad A Burns). The costumes (design by Kerry McCarthy) are unremarkable, and there aren’t many sound elements (design by Angie Hayes) to reference. If the purpose is to make a dreary atmosphere, the production succeeds in this area. Kudos to Joshua Brown on the exciting fight choreography.
Although KING LEAR is not a jovial romp for the casual theater-goer, this production is a beacon of ensemble work that highlights solo moments. It is a chance to witness some of Cleveland’s theater veterans as they work with difficult material and truly make it their own. It is a chance to see Robert Hawkes go mad in a blaze of glory (he really does a wonderful job with this role). It is a chance to see what is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. It is a chance to look at another family (albeit fictional) and to realize that yours isn’t so bad.