Saturday, September 26, 2015

Cal Shakes - King Lear

It only took a few minutes into King Lear at Cal Shakes for me (and my wife, as I found out later) to notice that things were a bit different from most other shows. Whether it's Shakespeare's writing, the talents behind this particular production, or a mixture of the two (most likely), it was clear that this was going to be more of an experience than anything else.

Honestly, I didn't have high hopes for this one. I was a bit disappointed with this year's Twelfth Night, and I figured that the main problem was that I was barely familiar with the source material. The other two shows at Cal Shakes this year didn't do too much for me either. I liked Life is a Dream just fine, and it was nice to be introduced to some Spanish drama. However, I didn't have enough to say about it in order to write a blog post. The Mystery of Irma Vep didn't really do it for me though. It's not that I disliked it, and I'm not saying it was bad. I'm just not a very big fan of that type of humor. I'm not quite sure how to describe it other than "schticky".

As for King Lear, I attempted to read it a few years ago and kinda slogged through it. I just couldn't feel any momentum coming from the text. I also tried watching a version that was essentially a filmed stage production, and that wasn't doing it for me either. (Not sure if I even finished it.) I had a bit of a better time with the graphic novel adaptation by Gareth Hinds. Still, I wasn't too enthused about the play itself, even though a friend of mine adores it, and I know that it's considered by many to be Shakespeare's best. With that, I only briefly re-familiarized myself with the play before seeing this performance because I just couldn't drum up the enthusiasm.

By the end of today's performance by Cal Shakes, I can now safely say the following:

I absolutely love King Lear.

Sometimes when I really love something, it's difficult to explain exactly why, and I feel like when I try to explain it, I'm somehow cheapening the experience. I think that I'm going to try anyway, even though I know that I'll never fully get across my feelings.

For those who don't know, the plot of King Lear is pretty simple. An old king prepares to divide up his kingdom among his three daughters, but he winds up disowning one of them. Why? The other two shamelessly exaggerate their love for him, but she tells him like it is. After she leaves, we find out that the other two daughters were all talk, and the one who was plain speaking was the one who actually loved him best (that last bit being mostly clear from the start). There's a subplot involving the Earl of Gloucester, who's also pretty bad at recognizing sincere love, as he trusts his scheming, bastard son over his other, loyal one.

Basically, like all great stories, it touches on universal themes about being human. In this case, it's all about how, when it comes to love, what matters is our actions toward others much more than the words that we say. Ever have somebody tell you that they respect you, yet it's so totally obvious that they don't? I know that I have.

There really wasn't a weak link in this entire production. Anthony Heald, who you might recognize from various TV and movie roles, did the one thing that's probably the most challenging thing for any actor who's doing Shakespeare. He managed to capture the poetry of the language while making it sound like something somebody would actually say. I have to imagine that this is toughest during the play's more emotional moments. Nobody speaks iambic pentameter when they grieve, yet you'd be convinced  that they do when you see this play.

Another standout was Aldo Billingslea, who played Lear's advisor, Kent. There is a moment in the play where he unloads a string of insults, and his delivery was nothing short of brilliant. I don't think that anybody could have done a better job, as it was totally in-character, yet his love for the language couldn't have come across any clearer. It was funny and beautiful at the same time. Lucky for me, I got a chance to talk to the man for a few moments after the play was over, and I got to tell him just how much I loved it.

As I said, I'm not as familiar with this play as I am with others by Shakespeare. Alter a line or two in Macbeth, and I'm going to catch it. With this, you can turn things all around, and unless it totally alters the story, I won't notice. However, the one thing that I caught was that they had Kjerstine Rose Anderson play the role of both Cordelia, Lear's youngest daughter (and the one who got disowned) and Lear's clown. In fact, it's not so much that it was the same actor, as this production had the clown BE Cordelia. How could such a thing be? Well, the clown was totally in Lear's head. After speaking with Aldo Billinslea after the show, I learned that the text had to be altered in order to make it seem like the clown was completely in Lear's head. I found that to be an interesting move, as it provides a really clear reason why the clown is the only one who can speak so plainly to Lear and get away with it.

I almost feel bad singling out a few actors in this play, because as I said, there wasn't a weak link in the bunch. Nobody's performance took me out of the reality that was being created on stage. Also, by the time it was all said and done, my wife and I had to just sit while everybody exited the theater, as we felt like we were still absorbing it all. (We were two of just a few people who gave a standing ovation. What the hell was up with that? Did these people not recognize brilliance when they saw it.)

I've seen a lot of plays at Cal Shakes. Some I've loved, some I've liked, and a few I've been a bit "blah" about. (Never flat-out hated anything though.) I think that this one might be my favorite, and I don't remember any other play stirring my emotions nearly as much as this one. Let's just say that I had to wipe my eyes a few times during the production. No! I wasn't crying! YOU WERE CRYING!

Another good indicator as to how brilliant this was is how my wife felt. While I don't consider myself a Shakespeare scholar, I am somewhat immersed in his work as I've taught five of his plays. I'm also pretty familiar with quite a few more, and I've been known to read one here and there just to increase my familiarity with the canon. My wife, however, likes his stuff, and goes to all of these shows with me. She's usually the one who takes the time to make sure that we have our tickets, and she's always more than willing to see a movie adaptation. So, she definitely likes him, but she doesn't know any of his plays backward and forward like I do with some of them.

What was her reaction to this play then? Exactly the same as mine. She told me that she felt like telling me within the first five minutes, "Damn. This is really good!" She didn't though, but we both looked at each other during intermission and concurred that we were witnessing something really special.

The thing is with Shakespeare is that it doesn't just belong to just the playwright. It also doesn't just belong to him and the fans. It's a collaborative effort, and it lives on with each new production, constantly shifting and adapting over the years. With Cal Shakes's production of King Lear, it once again proves what Ben Jonson said so long ago about the man: "He was not of an age but for all time!"