.Royal Folly, Brilliant Theater

SCS’s King Lear—Ultimate Drama

Admit it. We were there to watch a distinguished actor power his way through ultimate Shakespeare. Yet one of the most exciting things about the SCS production of King Lear, featuring Paul Whitworth as Lear, is that the veteran Royal Shakespeare Company actor has as goldmine of good company on the stage, and and under Paul Mullins‘ direction an exceptional cast brings this masterpiece to full life.

So many pungent lines, so many of which are now part of our everyday lexicon, so here’s an emblematic line to start off an exploration of Lear and his plunge into madness. “He hath ever but slenderly known himself,” observes one of his daughters.

Indeed Britain’s mythic King Lear is a vain, entitled, foolish old man. When the play opens he begins an ill-advised quest for filial flattery that will doom everyone it touches—Shakespeare at his most potent. Destroyed by their ambitions, their quest for power and their blindness to the feelings and true motives of those around them, Lear’s characters specialize in a broad bandwidth of duplicity.

Before there was Succession, there was Shakespeare’s Lear, a double helix of family dysfunction, potent as a shot of gin. Planning to retire, the king asks each of his three daughters to profess their love for him. Whoever flatters him most will receive the greater portion of his kingdom.

The two eldest, Goneril (Paige Lindsey White) and Regan (Kelly Rogers) are happy to spout elaborate praise, while the youngest, Cordelia (Yael Jeshion-Nelson), apple of her father’s eye, declines to offer anything other than what duty requires of her. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

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Well this doesn’t sit well with Lear, who disowns his youngest on the spot, complaining that he is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” Without lands or dowry, Cordelia is nonetheless claimed by her loving suitor, the King of France (Jono Eiland), and leaves the country. Lear’s tragic flaw is his lack of self-knowledge.

Shaking off his shock, Lear proclaims his intent to spend his retirement between the home of Goneril and her husband Albany (Rex Young), and Regan and her lord Cornwall (Charles Pasternak). Lack of self-knowledge is his fatal flaw. As the loyal Earl of Gloucester, Derrick Lee Weeden is riveting. A loving father to Edgar (Junior Nyong’o), and the illegitimate Edmund (M.L. Roberts), Gloucester is blind to the rivalry broiling between his two sons. The uneasy dynamic between the sons and their father is deftly played by all three actors.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods/They kill us for their sport,” Gloucester observes, as he begins his own decline. There are no winners in Shakespeare’s tale of gullible royals and greedy offspring, but there are astonishingly pungent lines, pliant verse, and in the center of it all is Paul Whitworth as Lear, curling his voice around the poetry and unleashing miracles.

“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” the truth-telling Fool (Sophia K. Metcalf) warns the King, who grows older (but not wiser) by the minute. Embraced by a remarkable cast, Whitworth proceeds to unleash his character’s physical decline and emotional chaos to a thundering conclusion.

If there is a metaphor threading through this remarkable play, is it vision. Lear is blind to the indifference of his eldest daughters, just as he is blind to the unsullied love of his youngest. Gloucester is blind to the lethal jealousy of his bastard son Edmund, and by mid-play he is literally blind.

Lear is arguably Shakespeare’s masterwork and this production is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear and see its unforgettable power.

We know the story. We can read the words. So why go see the play? Because with each live performance the tale is reborn. The complexity of relationships, of psychological underpinnings, of political implications comes to life. The live setting allows actors to reveal new shades and colors of meaning, and each actor on the stage influences the unfolding characters of the others. The words speak to our imaginations as the playwright intended. In Whitworth, the King lives, and dies again, for a few brief hours. All before your very eyes.

No one seems more at ease than Whitworth, whose wailing high notes send shivers down the spine. Mid-way through, as Lear begins to totter on the edge of his madness, Whitworth invents yet more facets of his character. Practically dancing the torrents of verse, he unleashes an arsenal of vocal colors. Whitworth is a prankster Lear, all silly charm and mercurial mood swings, as storms approach and darkness descends.

The storm craft of sound designer Barry Funderburg is genuinely thrilling. The scenes with his Fool are delicious. Kudos to the spunky and resourceful Metcalf, every bit up to the task as the one character allowed to tell the truth to the fallen monarch.

Weeden’s Gloucester is another revelation. Exuding presence and gravitas, this robust actor unveils the confusion and sorrow of a father who has failed both of his sons. Matched in physical stature and crisp portrayal, Rogers/Regan and White/Goneril are also matched in cunning as Lear’s elder daughters. What fun to watch the sisters each try to seduce the neferious Edmund, who’ll stop at nothing to become heir to Gloucester’s title.

M.L. Roberts makes a swaggering, upwardly-mobile Edmund. Junior Nyong’o delivers a nuanced Edgar, especially—in the disguise of a wandering beggar Poor Tom (by way of Bob Marley)—leading his broken father to safety. During the crucial storm, the ensemble of Lear, the Fool, Edgar/Poor Tom, and banished courtier Kent (the always resourceful Patty Gallagher) gives us the heart of the play in every dimension.

I could be wrong, but I’d swear that B. Modern has outdone herself in costuming this amazing stageful of actors. Everyone looks appropriately elegant, wicked and/or innocent, in a crisp array of fashions located somewhere near the end of the 19th century.

The evil sisters in gowns of a jarring palette. Poor Tom in ashes and rags. Whitworth in his greatcoat and Russian hat; in his hunting outfit; in his tatters and crown of herbs. A feast for all the senses, especially the imagination. Great lighting by Marcella Barbeau and scenic design from Michael Schweikardt keep us glued to heart of the moonlit Grove.

Congratulations to Paul Mullins and a remarkable company, who’ve created an electrifying showcase for Whitworth’s brilliance. Living up to all the advance hype, this is a show for the ages.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Paul Mullins. Shows in repertory with Taming of the Shrew and The Book of Will through August 27. santacruzshakespeare.org

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