Eyeballs loudly and forcibly removed: two. Sisters: three.
Body count: eight. Does it intrigue anyone else that now that Shotgun
artistic director Patrick Dooley is a proud papa, the company is
doing more work that touches on screwed-up relationships between
parents and children? Sure, Shotgun did The Play About the Baby
years ago, and Iphigenia at Aulis was all about a man sacrificing
his daughter. But its current production of King Lear makes two
in a row this year alone, after Bright Ideas pitted a ruthless mother
against her son's hapless preschool.
Pity Cordelia; she caught the "radical honesty" bug a
few centuries too early. When her father King Lear turns to her,
expecting that she will lavish him with the same kind of overblown
hooey that her mendacious older sisters Goneril and Regan have been
dishing out, she demurs. But Lear is not interested in plain, practical
love; he needs his kingly ego stroked. In a rage he disowns Cordelia,
divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and then plans to
spend his dotage alternating months between the two. This does not
please the two schemers, and for their own separate reasons they
set out to destroy him. Everything pretty much goes downhill from
there: The heavens respond with bad weather, Lear's retainers end
up banished or blinded, the king himself ends up naked and raving
in the middle of a big storm, and the bodies pile up.
All of this is much more riveting in the hands of the Shotgunners
than you might think. Codirectors Dooley and Joanie McBrien have
a punchy script and a fairly strong cast studded with heavy hitters.
Notably, this is a cast with great voices: Besides Richard Louis
James as Lear and an unusally muted Trish Mulholland as Goneril,
we have John Mercer, Nick Olivero, Katja Rivera, and so forth.
Richard Louis James' work with Shotgun has specialized in crazy,
and he doesn't disappoint here. Beginning powerful, assured, and
arrogant, he handles Lear's descent into madness — and the
newfound tenderness and sympathy for other people — seamlessly.
He has a hair-raising take on Lear's "Blow, winds, and crack
your cheeks!" speech.
One point that's a little weak is why the two older sisters are
treating their father so badly. Obviously they suck up to him in
the beginning because they want the land, but then things get confusing.
Goneril says daddy is making her crazy, but it's hard to see why.
Regan complains of how many people she needs to feed and house when
he comes to see her, but we just saw her get half of all his land
— it's not as if she's starving, even if a retinue of a hundred
knights adds up to a lot of guest toothbrushes. Mulholland spends
much of her stage time silently making expressive faces at the audience,
and Fontana Butterfield as Regan is incredibly graceful —
in a subtle moment where she picks up her skirt before stepping
backward you would think she'd grown up wearing courtly garb —
but whether their father has given them cause to be hateful or they're
just the "unnatural hags" he believes them to be is not
Unlike Edmund, bastard son of the duke of Gloucester and the only
Shakespearean villain who has a change of heart, not that it happens
in time to save anyone. Edmund is the subplot, yet nobody mentioned
this to the slitheringly good Benjamin Privitt, who finally gets
to play someone who isn't basically decent. Privitt's solo scenes
are tremendous — he's driven, funny, and seductive —
and his motivations and strategies are perfectly transparent. In
a world full of simplistic villains, Shakespeare's miscreants are
a welcome change with their complexity. They don't need to take
over the world; they're trying to right what they see as the terrible
wrongs that have been done them. Edmund was born out of wedlock,
and his father is always needling him about it.