It's at the pinnacle of Western civilization, but King Lear is still, first and foremost, a ripping yarn. When a theater company pulls it off, the audience leaves thoroughly entertained and rich in wisdom. A new theater troupe has come to Denver, and the very first thing the Ad Hoc Theatre Company has done is pull off Lear radiantly. Way to go.
Shakespeare's greatest tragedy is an intimate family story about such timely issues as elder and child abuse, the arrogance of high office and the wisdom and penetrating wit of "fools." But more important, it takes up the problem of moral blindness and the resultant weakness that makes one subject to mental manipulation.
Lear is a fool, and he pays for it big-time. But he is also a man "more sinned against than sinning." And as he sorts out the truth and faces his own flaws, we are caught up in his overpowering grief. Though society has changed and the sociopolitical institutions that lay him to waste no longer exist, we respond to his rage and sorrow because treachery, egotism, greed and betrayal of love continue to make perpetual chaos around us.
Old and tired out from a long reign, King Lear assembles his daughters to divide the kingdom among them. He asks each to describe how much she loves him. The older two, Goneril and Regan (two of the most frightening women in Shakespeare), give the politically correct answer--flattering the old man with protestations of overwhelming love, placing him before their husbands and all else on earth. But Cordelia, the youngest and best loved, is also the only honest woman among them. She tells him she loves him as a daughter ought to love a father, and no more. If the old man had any sense at all, he would appreciate Cordelia's plain speaking. But wrapped up in pride and his thirst for adoration, the old man flies into a rage and disowns her on the spot. Bad move.
The king's truest servant, the Earl of Kent, protests for Cordelia and is banished. And very shortly, the king learns how nasty his older daughters really are. They strip him slowly of his rights and dignity, and the angrier he gets, the nastier they get. Finally, the old man is left out in a storm with only his fool and his new servant--Kent, who has returned in disguise to watch over the errant king.
Meanwhile, a parallel tragedy unfolds as the Earl of Gloucester is tricked by his illegitimate son, Edmund, into believing his legitimate son, Edgar, has plotted to kill him and seize his property. Kissing up to the sadistic duo of Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, Edmund frames his father. Then Gloucester is blinded in a scene of unspeakable violence by Regan and the duke. Edgar, now disguised as a mad beggar, finds his blinded pater and protects him.
Obviously, things turn out badly for most concerned.
James Gale, originally from London and recently from Houston, is quite simply a great actor. His Lear blusters and rants, but always with nuances of feeling and increasing discovery. And as the old man begins to face who he is and what he has done, Gale unlocks the doors of despair so gradually and so convincingly that he shows us whole vistas of trouble we recognize and pity.
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Shawn Sherwood as Kent is the next-best news--an excellent performance that seems to anchor Gale's. Timothy Tait's Edmund is a delightful miscreant--energetic, witty and sensual. Kamalani Ishida as the evil Oswald, Goneril's servant, gives another smashing, inventive performance of a rogue--you only wish he were on stage more. Richard Nelson gives an intelligent vision of a wronged man as Edgar, but somehow never quite achieves the innocence the role requires.
The ladies fare a bit worse. Katherine Guthrie as Goneril has some good moments as an icy she-wolf, but at other times she seems merely passionless. Rebeque Destro as the sadistic Regan is somewhat more exciting to watch, but even she fails to plumb the depths of evil. Kelly Douglas is persuasive as Cordelia. Double-cast as the fool, however, she has problems making herself understood--her small voice is swallowed up again and again in the room's lousy acoustics.
Considering the physical limitations Ad Hoc is up against, this riveting performance of Lear is a fundamental miracle. The company has carved a theater out of an old synagogue, and the acoustics are dreadful. As accomplished--and in some cases, brilliant--as the actors are, much of the dialogue is lost in that sponge of a space. The wonderful, spartan set is marvelous to look at, but every time a booted player crosses it, the tramping noise on the bare boards drowns out dialogue.
This cast deserves to be heard--clearly. And the problems--all funding-correctable--will ease in time. Meanwhile, we have a new theater company capable of astounding work.