“Howl, howl, howl…She’s gone for ever!” The titular Lear cries while carrying his dead daughter. It is one of the most tragic scenes in dramatic literature. How shocking then to hear howls of laughter in the audience during Dallas Theater Center’s near-comedic production of Shakespeare’s searing examination of human identity, frailty, and forgiveness, King Lear.
Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty helms this co-production with Providence, Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company, and King Lear represents the last play in DTC’s four-year run of Shakespeare plays from each major genre. Moriarty is an enthusiastic lover of the Bard with a playful panache for execution. His A Midsummer Night’s Dream was candy-colored pop, his battle-heavy Henry IV had an anachronistic tune, and his production of The Tempest had a Lost sensibility. This is a man who likes to give his own spin to the plays.
In this case, Moriarty and company have taken the comedic elements of the play, which are there (the Fool, Kent’s insults of Oswald, the mad ravings of the disguised Edgar) and punched them up, and added humor to situations that do not usually warrant it, particularly in regard to Lear.
It is an alternate interpretation perhaps to soften its edges and make its direness more palatable. Many have felt the same about this play that presents a world that is “cheerless, dark, and deadly.” For nearly two hundred years of the its history it was altered for happy endings that kept the Fool alive (as in this production) and allowed Cordelia to survive and marry Edgar. However, too much hilarity, especially in a restored version can backfire and erase nearly all of the intended pathos.
The bizarre decision to make the king (Brian McEleney) a one-note caricature of a ranting “get off my lawn” style senior citizen makes things even worse. I am sure Mr. McEleney (over 75 plays at TRC) is a fine actor, which makes the choice to restrict him to a doddering, squinting old coot who rails in the same elevated monotone for the entire show inexplicable. His talents are lost in this constrained take, and more importantly, Lear is reduced to a “look, he’s old and crazy, it’s funny!” figure instead of a fallen and bereft king.
Another odd choice was using Phyllis Kay (TRC) for the Earl (Countess?) of Gloucester. I am all for casting against gender, especially in a play that has only three female roles (powerhouses though they may be); however, there should be a compelling reason to do so. The switch should add something to the play, not take away. Having a mother instead of a father dealing with sons confuses the counterbalanced plot points of rash fathers disowning good offspring for bad. Not to mention the added levels of squeamishness of a man torturing and blinding a woman in the Cornwall and Gloucester scene.
There are some bright points though. Michael McGarty’s scenic design along with Seth Reiser’s lighting, and Broken Chord’s sound and original music create an enveloping atmosphere, and provide awesome transitions from court to rain swept wilds.
Christie Vela as the eldest evil daughter Goneril oozes polished command. Stephen Berenson’s (TRC) Fool is an able Borscht Belt comedian in plaid-panted motley. Hassan El-Amin as the faithful Earl of Kent transforms into the streetwise Caius in a powerful performance. Lee Trull’s Edmund is a charming rat bastard, and Steven Michael Walters as Edgar bares all after losing all in a delightful turn.
Many scholars and critics contend that King Lear, despite its rightful place among the highest literary achievements, is better read than played upon a stage. Its complex philosophical questions about uncertainty and chaos, interwoven subplots, and dense, yet lovely lyricism are perhaps too challenging for modern audiences. On the whole, reading the play is preferable to this production’s slight take.