What a difference no-nonsense direction makes.
Elizabeth Huddle heeds the clues in Shakespeare's text instead of making her own mystery of them -- as have many Colorado Shakespeare Festival directors before her -- and the performers in her version of King Lear, led by guest artist Raye Birk's virtuoso turn in the title role, render emotionally resonant portraits, a combination that results in one of the better serious plays done by the CSF in many a season. Although the three-hour-plus production stumbles over a few rough spots, including some flubbed lines, intrusive special effects and a poorly realized subplot, it holds the audience rapt from start to finish.
After a pretentious prologue -- clad in street clothes, the company assembles on stage and does tai chi before launching into the first scene -- Shakespeare's epic, generally considered his monumental achievement, is quickly set in motion. Thanks to Huddle's finesse, scenes dovetail and segue with admirable precision: Gone are the agonizing pauses and inter-scene silences that for years have marred productions at CU-Boulder's expansive Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre. In this briskly paced production, the actors stride on stage and begin Scene Two as soon as the last syllable of Scene One is uttered -- a pattern they wisely maintain to the last dying strain. Better yet, the performers act with the dialogue instead of diluting it with endless, self-indulgent emoting. The result is a well-told tale that draws considerable power from the play's inner dynamics rather than a director's layered-on devices -- which, come to think of it, might be what that whole tai chi thing was trying to signal at the outset.
Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, CU-Boulder
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival
Through August 18, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org
It turns out that the production doesn't need extraneous editorializing; as veteran actor Birk and his compatriots prove, the play's meaning and message arise from the words themselves. Taking his cue from several references in the text, Birk reveals Lear to be a man of tidal passion, a headstrong, passionate and prideful monarch who is prone to devastating swells of affection, bitterness, rancor and regret. His is not a crotchety ancient on the verge of senile caprice, but a vibrant, manipulative patriarch brought to ruin by force of an angry God, vindictive children and his own hubris. Whether he's erupting in rage at one or more of his three daughters, clutching his chest in manic sorrow ("My heart! My rising heart!" he gasps), breaking down at the sight of filial rejection, railing at nature on an open heath, ruminating on life's absurdities ("When we are born, we cry that we are come/To this great stage of fools") or howling with primal despair, Birk delivers a performance of great artistry, humanity and scope.
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With few exceptions, the supporting players follow Birk's lead and create characters of subtlety and dimension. Timothy Carter is beautifully transparent as Edmund, the bastard son who connives his way to an illegitimate earldom. Where another actor might lay it on thick, Carter takes a lighter touch that lets us see Edmund as a product of his upbringing, an unabashed machiavel who sees nothing wrong with deceiving others as long as it helps him secure and maintain the name of respect, if not the thing itself. Sarah Lauren Fallon commands the stage as Regan, one of Lear's two scheming daughters, rising like a haughty queen midway through and falling victim to her own machinations at play's end. Michael Pocaro is mostly right on the money as Kent, the phlegmatic servant whom Lear banishes in a fit of rage only to unknowingly embrace and lean upon during harder times. Although he initially looks and sounds as though he deserves to have his birthright stolen from him, Philip Griffith Pace eventually rises to the occasion as Edgar, Edmund's half-brother. Dennis R. Elkins has a tendency to hem and haw as the boys' father, Gloucester -- a habit that undercuts the famous Dover Cliffs scene, played here with a dismally perfunctory tone -- but he conveys the role's lyricism and irony elsewhere. And Candace Taylor delivers a strong-voiced, if overly proper, portrait as Goneril, another of Lear's evil-minded daughters.
Unfortunately, Huddle's choice to cast a male actor as both the Fool and Lear's "good" daughter, Cordelia, simply doesn't work. Casting one performer in both roles has been done before to great success, and Andrew Wasyleczko plays both parts with stylish flair. But in the context of an otherwise gender-specific cast, the choice doesn't do much to illuminate either role or the play as a whole. Furthermore, the Gloucester/Edgar/Edmund subplot fails to touch our hearts, a shortcoming that undermines the Lear/Cordelia plot it's intended to underscore -- thereby robbing the tragedy of considerable cathartic feeling.
For the most part, though, the production proves the point that trying to outsmart the audience with an outsized "concept" approach is as dumb as it would have been 400 years ago -- when Shakespeare, who had a financial interest in the company that performed his plays, knew better than to try to pull too much theatrical wool over the groundlings' eyes. The production also champions the use of the non-specific time period, where rank and social standing are suggested by each costume's line and color rather than period detail (Anne Thaxter Watson's costumes work like a charm). Finally, the show demonstrates that a director can stage a respectful, straightforward version of a Shakespeare play without getting stuck with the pejorative label of "purist." In fact, the show's few gimmicks seem hopelessly out of place: Nearly every time that Lear drifts into madness, a high-tech bolt of lightning flashes across the back wall. But it's clear throughout that Birk is able to harness the character's emotional fireworks through speech and bearing, as should all Shakespearean actors. Though the battles with special effects are distracting at first, the esteemed Birk wins them hands down -- an encouraging sign, as Hamlet might observe, that the play really is the thing that best captures the conscience of the king.