William Shakespeare’s King Lear is the Mount Everest of Western dramatic literature. Even for avowed Bard non-idolaters, it is a monumental work of power and passion, leading no less a Shakespeare critic than George Bernard Shaw to write, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”
It’s Shakespeare’s Symphony No. 5, his Last Judgment, his “Like a Rolling Stone.” Its themes of familial discord, the thin line between madness and sanity, the conflict between rationalness and irrationalness, as well as the unanswered question to the greatest of all man’s ponderings—who am I? —all of which ruthlessly unfurl in an Old Testament-like fury, makes it an astonishing piece of writing.
But, like many a mountain, it’s a tough summit to scale; for two centuries, only a cleaned-up, artificial-happy-ending version was presented on English stages. Not until the mid-19th Century did Shakespeare’s dark glimpse into the void of human existence receive a non-tinkered production.
Even today, it is rarely produced relative to such Shakespearean juggernauts as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. It’s just too big, too dark, too damn depressing. It also requires one of the most Herculean of all acting feats: portraying an 80-year-old king driven to stark-raving madness who bellows at a raging storm, crawls on all fours like a demented Nebuchadnezzar and is forced to carry his dead daughter at the play’s climax.
Which is why the occasion of Shakespeare Orange County’s production of Lear is so noteworthy. According to director Tom Bradac, it’s the first time the play has been produced professionally in the county since 1994, a production Bradac also helmed.
And while this production contains all those things that make Shakespeare a tough sell for the barbarous hordes—like lasting three hours and proving difficult to follow unless you already know the story—the combination of straightforward, gimmick-free storytelling and stellar acting makes it a long ride definitely worth taking.
Any Lear rises and falls on the crest of the actor called upon to portray the tragic protagonist. Donning the tarnished crown for this show is Dennis Krausnick, an eminent American Shakespearean actor and founding member of the 30-year-old Massachusetts troupe Shakespeare & Company. Krausnickobviously knows Shakespeare well, and he’s up to the task.
Though on the night I witnessed the production it was difficult to hear him at times—partly because the king’s most famous speech is delivered amid rolling thunder, and partly because some kind of carnival was happening outside the theater’s doors—Krausnick forcefully delivers Lear’s painful arc. He begins as a blustery, arrogant, demanding old man obstinately marching in his regal trappings, only to see his power, dignity and even sanity slowly stripped away. Emotionally, spiritually and economically bankrupted, he gradually recovers some sense of humanity by sifting through the ashes of his despair, and then he receives a cathartic burst of redemption near play’s end, at which time it all comes grimly crashing down again.
Krausnick nails Lear’s tortuous journey, delivering a performance both physically and poetically commanding. And he’s surrounded by first-rate talent. Carl Reggiardo, as the steadfastly loyal Kent, once again stakes his claim as one of Orange County’s most polished actors, imbuing his character with a sense of inviolate dignity and moral resonance. Michael Nehring, as the savagely treated Gloucester (who merely gets both eyes torn from his skull and wanders sightless through a stormy wilderness) is also excellent, as are all the main supporting characters. Alyssa Bradac (daughter of the director) contributes an interesting take on Lear’s famous Fool, crafting a performance that is both scurrilously irreverent as well as profoundly sad. Shaun Anthony takes what could be a hapless role—that of Edgar, who begins as a gullible nitwit who believes just about anything he hears—and instills it with a desperately crafty sense of survival. Aso excellent are the three women—daughters Goneril (Evelyn Carol Case), Regan (Kim Shively) and Cordelia (Marissa Pistone)—who destroy Lear’s life, though it’s plenty of his own fault.
But it’s Ryan Shively, in the role of Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, who contributes the most surprisingly effective performance. Considered by some to be a superfluous character in the play, since his machinations to usurp his father’s title feel like a glorified subplot compared to the huge tapestry of Lear’s decline and redemption, Shiveley’s Edmund seems as important in this production as the king himself. His swaggering, prideful performance elevates this Edmund from the minor rung of Shakespearean villains to the level of Iago and Richard III.
Lear has been a long time returning to a professional OC stage. But this production confirms that of all Shakespeare’s sweeping epics, it may be his most unflinchingly honest look into the human condition—and his one play most applicable to the 21st Century. For though the humanity on display in King Lear wears a dark and turbulent face forced to stare into the terrifying abyss of non-meaning, it’s also one potentially capable of turning away from that void with some glimpse of clarity.
King Lear at Shakespeare Orange County at the Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 590-1575; www.shakespeareoc.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Sept. 18. $30-$32.
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This review appeared in print as "Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth: Every aspect of this King Lear pierces to the dark heart of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy."