I'm not sure why director Lynne Collins chose to set her King Lear in the late nineteenth-century American West, since it doesn't add much of anything to the theme or story. But it does very much fit the persona and acting style of John Hutton, who makes a fine, easy-talking, loose-limbed but imperious cattle king as he divides his land among his daughters, scanting true-hearted Cordelia and giving everything to Regan and Goneril. And there's so much to the script — so much poetry, wisdom, humanity — that every new production yields unanticipated insights. One of the things Hutton brings to the party is humor: His Lear is often funny. Not inadvertently funny — as too many productions of Shakespeare's tragedies tend to be — but possessed of the kind of wry, humorous wisdom we definitely associate with the frontier. The unexpectedness of Hutton's readings sparks many of Lear's scenes to vivid life.
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Fine actor that he is, though, Hutton just doesn't bring the tragic heft that the role requires, particularly in the later scenes. In one of the play's most profound and moving sequences, Lear, driven into madness, encounters Gloucester on the wild moors. Gloucester is half-mad himself: Having found out about his attempts to help her father, Regan, along with her vicious husband, bound him, tore out his eyes and set him loose to wander, helpless. Two old men, betrayed by those they loved, one literally blind and both metaphorically so — Gloucester, who allowed a scheming son to turn him against the son who was true to him; Lear, who valued the fulsome praise of Regan and Goneril over Cordelia's truth-telling — tormented beyond endurance. Yet this Lear, flowers in his hair, seems more a hippie than a violated king. The inappropriate audience laughter that accompanied the mad scenes on the night I attended this Colorado Shakespeare Festival performance was hardly Hutton's fault: Bob Buckley played Gloucester in such a fuzzy and generalized way that he never became human for us. In addition, a light rain was falling, causing the audience to giggle uncontrollably every time weather was mentioned, and to laugh at Lear's earlier plea to the gods not to let "water drops/Stain my man's cheeks." The pacing of much of the production was off, too, perhaps because of the company's short rehearsal period. Still, the fall of an all-powerful king, the extraordinary invocations Lear utters — these should provoke awe under any circumstances.
Stephen Weitz and Robert Sicular did well as the Fool and Kent, respectively, and there was good work from Geoffrey Kent as a lying but cheekily appealing Edmund. Jamie Ann Romero was charming as Cordelia, though she lacked the steely spine required by the role. Josh Robinson's Edgar was sometimes genuinely moving, but Robinson might have differentiated more among the various characters Edgar was forced to play; as it was, Poor Tom's high-pitched voice sometimes emerged from Edgar's throat. Karyn Casl delivered the role of Goneril in a stagey singsong that allowed the words no relationship whatever with their meaning. Karen Slack gave us a more complex Regan, but it was hard to fathom exactly who this woman was, shrinking violet or fanged adder, and I also couldn't figure out why she was pregnant throughout. Was Regan going to deliver at some point? Did the pregnancy explain her moodiness? Reeling from the effects of the poison administered by her sister, Regan did utter the one line that made me laugh, however: "Lady, I am not well; else I should answer from a full-flowing stomach."
King LearProduced by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 8, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, www.coloradoshakes.org.
And there was one more directorial innovation that went astray. In the text, the Fool disappears partway through the action, and scholars are still arguing about what happened to him, and whether the line Lear utters over Cordelia's body, "And my poor Fool is hanged," relates to the Fool or to Cordelia, since "fool" can also mean "child" in Elizabethan English. Collins solved the problem by having the Fool hang himself on stage. This occurred within full sight of Lear, who, being mad, just patted the corpse absentmindedly on the knee and ambled off.
There are treasures here, but they don't quite outweigh these missteps.