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San Francisco Bay Times, May 18, 2006


King Lear Straight Up

-- By Ed Brownson

Shotgun Players' production of King Lear, now playing at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, takes a back-to-basics approach, happily free of fantastic costumes, complex sets, interminable scene changes, faux Brit accents, and "creative interpretations." For directors Patrick Dooley and Joanie McBrien, the play is the thing. They have stripped away the baggage the 20th century seemed to load on all things Shakespeare, and the results are splendid: a fast paced, comprehensible, and ultimately touching evening of theatre.

Richard Louis James as Lear is impressive from first appearance. Vain and full of himself, Lear commands his daughters to compete in a bragging match on the topic, "Who loves daddy most?". Many familiar with the play forget this aspect of the king, remembering only the wronged and disappointed old man of the final scenes. Shakespeare is too subtle for such simplicity: his Lear is a man on a journey of self discovery, from arrogance to abandonment to madness to his epiphany, only to arrive too late, too late. James clearly shows us a man working through a lifetime of hopes and disappointments.

Trish Mulholland as Goneril, the oldest and cruelest of Lear's three daughters, gives an excellent performance. Mulholland seems to best understand that despite Shakespeare's gorgeous language, the lines are after all dialog and must be spoken as such, not just declaimed for their cultural iconography. As is usual with virtually every modern production of Shakespeare, several cast members do fall victim to that temptation; fortunately, this problem is limited to a few minor characters.

Other performances of note include Eric Burns as an engaging Earl of Kent; Benjamin Privet as the villain Edmund (though fairly one-note), Privet is sufficiently creepy to keep us hissing at his every appearance; and Katja Rivera as the Fool. Rivera is particularly interesting, more because of her physical acting than any mastery of Shakespearean speech; when she does get the language's rhythms down, she will go far.

Alf Pollard's set a simple and effective suggestion of a castle's courtyard is key to the production's streamlined aesthetic. By allowing the script's many entrances and exits to take place quickly, scene follows scene with hardly a break. The rush of events in Lear is at times dizzying - a lot goes on here - but the fast pace and lucidity of the narration is spot-on for contemporary ADD-afflicted audiences.

Another happy decision Dooley and McBrien make is to avoid the temptation of having the cast speak in mangled versions of what we Americans call a " British accent." The resulting plain speech may irritate some purists, but it does wonders for a 21st century audience's ability to follow the story - and isn't that, after all, the point? There is no 15-minute lag between the play's start and the point when the 17th century language kicks in and starts to make sense.

King Lear resonates with an older crowd - how could it not? Most audiences watching the play can be divided in two by age, roughly at 45 or so. The younger half watches a story unfold which may or not be familiar but is certainly external to their experience. The older half, however, sees their lives on stage, and not just in the fabled and inevitable disappointment of offspring. Gray heads nod knowingly at Lear's self-inflicted suffering for his arrogance and foolishness every bit as much as they do at Goneril's treachery or Regan's butchery.

Shotgun Players, like many small companies, has roots in summer theater in the park, which mostly means Shakespeare (though lately Shotgun has been experimenting with Brecht and others). Outdoor productions virtually demand a straightforward approach and expansive actors. This heritage is visible in this production of King Lear. Shotgun is successfully maturing into an established Bay Area company; it's refreshing to see they are not afraid to take what they learned in their hard-scrabble days and put it on stage now. Go Shotgun. And, go see King Lear.

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