If many contemporary playwrights were writing a play about a powerful and impetuous 80-year-old man with three grown and often scheming daughters, you'd expect to get a ton of exposition about their histories — all that back story yadda-yadda.
Not so with William Shakespeare, a man who knew a little something about putting on a show. In King Lear, old Will's script moves relentlessly forward like a shark, always living in the moment, never blathering about the past, and always pulling us along, inexorably, with him. This is one of the reasons this play has always exerted such a powerful hold on both acting companies and audiences.
There is much to admire in this staging of King Lear by Great Lakes Theater, including some incisive performances under the direction of Joseph Hanreddy and a scenic design that falls into a state of decrepitude right alongside the King's. While it is not exactly a perfect production, with too many scenes performed with an inward and sometimes inaccessible perspective, the tragedy of this leader and his family rings out in a powerful second act.
It all starts out amiably enough, with the elderly Lear yearning for a bit of time off, although he still wants to retain some kingly perks. So he decides to ask his trio of daughters how much they love him, and split up Britain among them, according to the effusiveness of their answers. Hey, what could go wrong?
Of course, Cinderella's evil stepsisters, Goneril and Regan, hide their fangs and blow massive blasts of sunshine up daddy's ass, while the youngest sister Cordelia, always Lear's fave, answers honestly and says she loves her daddy like, you know, the normal amount. That rational answer enrages papa and he vows to cut her out of his will, not to mention denying her any slice of territory. So he splits her share between the other two and heads off to spend alternate months with those loathsome offspring.
But the Lears aren't the only family with progeny problems. Down the street at the Gloucesters, the Earl (a dutiful and slightly dim David Anthony Smith) has two sons: nice legitimate Edgar and the calculating bastard (literally) Edmund. Bugged by his illegitimate status, Edmund plants a letter that indicates that Edgar is plotting to kill the Earl. Dad buys the grift and Edgar goes into hiding disguised as Tom, a mad beggar. Just goes to show, you should never name both your sons Ed, even back in ancient, pre-Christian Britain.
It gets seriously ugly from that point on, with Lear's faithful Earl of Kent (Dougfred Miller) trying to run interference and Lear's Fool cracking keenly perceptive jokes meant to puncture his boss's kingly balloon — kind of like an on-the-payroll Jon Stewart.
This show rises and falls on its leads, and in this instance it's a mixed bag. On the plus side, Aled Davies is an impressive and vulnerable Lear, swerving from early impulsiveness to madness as he sees his legacy being destroyed. Even as Lear's life slips from his grasp, Davies registers the humanity and understanding that finally makes the King the ultimate tragic figure.
Among his daughters, Laura Perrotta is snark personified as Goneril. Indeed, her sharp, dismissive arm gesture after learning that she's been granted (only!) a third of the kingdom tells you everything you need to know about this grasping woman. As Regan, Robyn Cohen holds her own but doesn't register as enough of a mean counterpoint to Goneril, while Cassandra Bissell avoids most of the pitfalls of playing Cordelia, making her strong without being sappy.
The Gloucester kids also have their performance ups and downs. J. Todd Adams as Edgar is fairly invisible until he emerges as Tom, with Adams doing his now patented Crazy Scrawny Shirtless Guy routine (he did a similar riff as Caliban in The Tempest last spring). In the role of Edmund, Jonathan Dyrud emotes with surface passion but with little impact, minimizing the effect when he finally joins forces with Goneril.
As always, the go-to clown in the GLT company is Tom Ford, and he delivers a reliably Tom Ford-ish performance as the Fool. Playing to the audience more than to his fellow actors, he executes predictable, low-risk comedy turns and swallows the laughter whole, like a hungry killer whale being tossed live mackerel.
The performances are augmented by scenic designer Linda Buchanan's set, which begins as a solid and handsome stone wall with two huge glass panel doors. But by the end, the stones are askew, the glass panel missing or shattered, and the two pillars collapsed. It is a resonant metaphor for the life of King Lear, a man who, like most of us, is too soon old and too late smart.