"King Lear" comes late in the chronology of plays by William Shakespeare, following "Othello" by a year and just barely preceding "Macbeth" and "Julius Caesar." In spite of its tragic environment in the canon it is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy of all the works of the period.
At its conclusion on the newly named Tina Packer Playhouse stage at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, there are six dead bodies, including all the members of Lear's immediate family, and there are more bodies offstage. Those who survive the internal war that is inspired by a foolish king upon whose head age has settled do so without joy or delight of any kind. The country in which the play is set would mourn if it realized its losses, but the acts of the principal participants have been heinous crimes and the world of Lear's own time period would see no losses in these deaths.
That may well be the greatest tragedy of all: a King, three Princesses, one Duke, one Earl, one Steward, one heir apparent, one hundred soldiers and possibly the King of France have all been dispatched. The road to this wholesale destruction includes off-road stops at madness, humiliation, desecration of youth, the misunderstandings and distrusts of love, and a whole lot of other human failings.
Shakespeare pulled out the stops and en route he wrote some of the most quotable, recognizable lines and speeches of his entire career: "This way madness lies." "Men are as the time is." "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, Blow!" "Howl, howl, howl!" and so many others.
King Lear's long, slow descent into madness and his partial recovery, at least twice, makes this role one of the most difficult to perform well. It is filled with little traps set there to trip up an actor who cannot retain and reflect all of the author's cunning changes and alterations of personality.
He must always be the King, even in the depths of despair and tragic loss, always in those moments when his history and his personality are submerged beneath layers of illogical reasoning. Shakes&Co's co-founder Dennis Krausnick has undertaken this role and he has emerged a Lear for this century. Other actors' performances will now be measured against his own.
The company is literally stuffed to the gills with actors who may one day take up the new Krausnick challenge and bring some formidable talents to the role, but for now they are playing their own characters with substance and strength.
Jonathan Epstein is both moving and engaging as the Earl of Kent who dons a disguise in order to continue serving his King. James Read is torn to emotional shreds as the conflicted Duke of Albany, husband of Lear's eldest daughter Goneril. Bill Watson does justice to the Duke of Cornwall, husband of sister number two, Regan. Timothy Douglas is a perfect Oswald juggling his loyalties and meting out judgments.
Kevin G. Coleman is a superb Fool, providing more insights into the King he serves than into the jokes he tells. His work in this play serves as a reminder of his performing talents and provides his compatriots with a vision of a different future for him in this company.
Jonathan Croy is simply brilliant as the Earl of Gloucester, father of two sons who cannot possibly mirror his own loyalties and ideals. His final scenes are among the most moving in this play, particularly his recognition scene with Lear.
Breaking new ground in a career that has been fascinating to witness is Ryan Winkles as Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son and heir. He plays madness and feigned madness with equal directness, and his scenes before and after his frightful voyage through the inner mind and soul are beautifully and realistically delivered.
Lear's three daughters are played with flair and flash by Corinna May (Goneril), Kristin Wold (Regan) and Kelly Galvin (Cordelia). May is, as always, strong, well-defined and one step away from pushing her envelope too hard. She has control and she maintains it but as the play progress we can feel her champing at the bit to chew just a bit of scenery. She demurs, however, and keeps a level head.
Wold has a tendency to speak too quickly and to lose the sense in her speeches, but her dialogue scenes are delicious and she has mastered the "aside glance" that speaks louder than any words could do about her character's true intentions.
Galvin understands the impact of directness and when she speaks to her father in this play it always with an indefatigable eye-to-eye contact that indicates there are no lies in her speech. When these three women have to play off one another there is a true sense of no-holds-barred.
For some reason that I don't get director Rebecca Holderness has chosen to stage this play with a look of 1906 Russia "in order to recall a time in recent memory when the errors, both public and private, of a great and passionate ruler led to the demise of a family, an empire, and a way of life," she says in the program. All well and good.
But every character's especially British name and the use of the city of Dover and its chalk cliffs in the dialogue instantly remove any thought of Russia at any time period so the decision seems somehow pointless, unless you consider the lovely costumes provided by Govane Lohbauer.
There is certainly a parallel to be drawn between the Lear Britain and the Imperial Romanov Russia, but it is more obvious in the telling than in the showing; also you'd need two more daughters.
This is a play about misunderstood loyalties. This is a play about family dynamics where an unreasonable parent demands too much from a favorite child and can only be disappointed when an answer is less than anticipated. It's a play about betrayal and faithlessness and about the every day matters of human relationships based on idealism. It is, essentially, a soap opera and perfectly devised for the afternoon television audience.
It will get you tearful and it will make you smile. It is Shakespeare's medieval tragedy with a horde of lessons for a time four hundred years in the author's future. It is an opportunity to take your own measure for measure and filter the results as you like it while suffering through all of your familial love's labours lost. And it's a tragedy, but one you will walk away from knowing that something great took place on the stage before you.
"King Lear" plays through August 19 in repertory at the Tina Packer Playhouse on the Shakespeare and Company campus located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For info and tickets call 413-637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org/.