It's up close and personal — the unpredictable mood swings of an aging mind and the bloody treachery of rivals for power. By staging Shakespeare's "King Lear" in the intimate, in-the-round Thomas Theatre and setting it in a contemporary time frame, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Bill Rauch provides the play with a rare immediacy and visceral impact.
In this production, which opened Sunday, Rauch gives equal emphasis to the personal and the political tragedy that results from Lear's impetuous decision to divide his realm among his conniving elder daughters, Goneril (Vilma Silva) and Regan (Robin Goodrin Nordli), and disinherit his youngest, the honest Cordelia (Sofia Jean Gomez).
Rauch has cast two OSF actors, Michael Winters and Jack Willis, to alternate performances as King Lear, allowing each actor his particular interpretation. Rauch said he initially made the casting decision based on the intensity of the role and the length of the run — one of the festival's longest (it plays through Nov. 3). Very quickly, he discovered that the two performers had widely divergent approaches to the character. Rauch describes the casting as "an artistic experiment."
Winters played Lear in the play's opening. His Lear was fond, foolish and ultimately filled with compassion and grace. It will be interesting to see what Willis does with the role — well worth seeing the production twice. (The festival's website, osfashland.org, has the actors' performance schedule posted.)
In a larger production venue, "King Lear" is often treated as a metaphor for the chaos that occurs when the natural order is turned upside down, when power is not transferred in an orderly manner in either kingdoms or families.
Rauch, however, deliberately uses the confined space of the Thomas Theatre to turn "King Lear" from metaphor to a real and very contemporary story. With the magic of Christopher Acebo's spare set, Christopher Akerlind's imaginative lighting and Andre J. Pluess' impressive sound design, Rauch brings us into the play's action. We are by turns in Lear's throne room, a living space in Goneril's palace complete with large-screen television, a courtyard outside Gloucester's gracious country home or on an English moor during a violent storm. Costume designer Linda Roethke provides up-to-the-minute military uniforms and some of the most sumptuous gowns this side of the Oscars' red carpet.
Lear's undoing begins when he decides to abdicate the responsibility of ruling and retire as a pampered elder statesman, living alternatively with his elder daughters, at their expense. His daughters soon see him as a nuisance, a petulant, imperious old man with far too large a personal staff. They have gained their inheritance; the troublesome Lear is no longer of use to them, so they throw him out. Of his courtiers, only the Earl of Gloucester (Richard Elmore) and the banished Earl of Kent (Armando Durán) remain loyal to him. Lear, left on his own in a raging thunderstorm with only his Fool (Daisuke Tsuji) for company, descends into an alternate reality.
As with all of Shakespeare, there is, of course, a subplot — Gloucester's relationship with his sons. Gloucester allows his younger, illegitimate son, Edmund (Raffi Barsoumian), to convince him that the elder, legitimate heir, Edgar (Benjamin Pelteson), is plotting against him. Edgar flees, adopting the disguise of a mad beggar, Poor Tom. Edmund, in turn, betrays his father to Goneril and Regan to gain title to the earldom. Gloucester, like Lear, has his own redemptive path, from arrogant insensitivity through gratuitous punishment to peaceful understanding.
Rauch's casting choices are impeccable. Silva is flawless as the conniving Goneril, matched by Nordli's ruthless Regan. Peter Frechette as Goneril's husband, Albany, and Rex Young as Regan's spouse, Cornwall, hold their own, but the men's characters are meant to be overwhelmed by the two sisters. Barsoumian is a properly villainous Edmund and both Pelteson and Durán give fine performances in their "disguises." OSF newcomer Gomez imparts a neat elegance to Cordelia.
This "King Lear" is both modern and timeless. It recounts the eternal stories of loyalty and treachery, parents and children, self-absorption and selfless love and succeeds in placing the audience as participants in it all.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.