As anyone who has ever visited a nursing home knows, longevity can be a mixed blessing. For one British King named Lear, his life would have been a lot happier if he had tipped over a bit earlier. But he didn't, and while that was too bad for him, we're all the richer for it.
Indeed, King Lear is considered by many Shakespeare's greatest play, and it is an honor well earned. In a script that bristles with profound themes and savage collisions involving family treachery, blindness (literal and figurative), and madness, this is prime-time theatrical fodder.
Given such high-octane material, it is incumbent on the players to provide the gristle and nuance that makes the work sing onstage. The Ohio Shakespeare Festival is often successful at this — and sometimes dazzlingly so, although there is a certain softness at the center that prevents it from reaching its full potential here.
Retiring Lear is slicing up his kingdom among his three daughters, but frank-spoken Cordelia won't play the suck-up game at which her sisters Goneril and Regan excel. Even though Lear seems to love Cordelia best, he acts like a true old fart, banishes Cordie, and divides her third of the country between her scheming sisters.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester has his own problem children: Good boy Edgar is being deceived by his illegitimate brother Edmund, who is actively working to disinherit Edgar. Edmund gives Dad a fake letter claiming Edgar is plotting to kill him, so Edgar (with Edmund's nefarious help) decides to hide out as a filthy, crazy beggar to avoid the Earl's wrath.
Lear decides to visit the Regan and Goneril homesteads, but that leads to more agony because the daughters are pissed that the old man insists on traveling with a hundred knights (that's a lot of extra sheets and coffee cups). That's when Lear is forced out into a raging storm, madness ensues, and his fate is sealed.
There are fine performances in this strong company that make many aspects of this Lear leap to life. Eric Lualdi makes Edmund's evil a natural force of his personality, resulting in an even more chilling portrayal. And Andrew Cruse is believable as the naive Edgar, even when he's slathering himself with mud and acting like an idiot.
Robert Hawkes' Gloucester is a pitifully flawed man. When his eyes are gouged out by Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (a vicious Timothy Champion), his eventual clarity of "sight" helps galvanize the play's central idea of illusions (and delusions) revealed.
As the two nasty sisters, Holly Humes (Goneril) and Dede Klein (Regan) simmer and snap with appropriate venom as they trash their fragile father. Tess Burgler portrays Cordelia with staunch moral certainty, and her eventual reconciliation with Lear is touching.
In the legendary and demanding role of King Lear, director Terry Burgler has cast himself. While the man's skills at interpreting Shakespeare are remarkable, he does himself a disservice here. Appearing onstage in a luxurious white wig that's half as long as he is, he looks like a cross between Little Enos Burdette from Smokey and the Bandit and My Pretty Pony.
Although Burgler's Lear is accessible and at times even amusing, he lacks some of the edgy grandeur and existential angst that can give the character such riveting power. Since he's onstage for much of the show, Burgler the director is unable to see the ways in which Burgler the actor could shape his interpretation in different and perhaps more resonant ways.
But as a director, Burgler does well with other cast members. David McNees is fine as the Earl of Kent, in both his guises, and Dylan White generates laughs in his deadpan rendition of Lear's Fool, the man who speaks truth to power.
Although less than perfect, there is much to admire in this Lear. And with summer entering its final weeks, there is certainly no better place to view Will's works than at Ohio Shakespeare Festival's Stan Hywet Hall outdoor venue. With a stage framed by towering trees and bullfrogs adding their basso commentary from the nearby lagoon, it's a little slice of theater heaven.
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