shotgun players

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The Shakespeare Revue, May 21, 2006


"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!"

-- By Denise Battista

The Shotgun Players' presentation of King Lear, directed by Patrick Dooley and Joanie McBrien, is an outward spectacle. An elaborate collage of information, quotations, and thematic declarations decorate the lobby at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA. The set is impressive, reenacting the interior of a medieval castle, adorned with a hierarchy of stone steps that lead up to the onstage entrances and exits. The play's recorded sound effects are somewhat medieval themselves, yet they voice their opinions throughout the play. The lighting is spectacular, creating a shadowed forest for Poor Tom, and a spotted lightning storm for Poor Lear. And I found it wonderfully refreshing to see a troupe tackle Shakespeare in period dress. Unfortunately, many of the actors did not seem comfortable in their own shoes.

This is a difficult play to tackle. Even Carey Perloff, artistic director at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, removed the well-promoted Lear from their 2005 docket due to irreconcilable difficulties. The thing that Dooley and McBrien's production lacks most is any sort of connection between the actors. This is disappointing, because there are some fine actors in this play. Richard Louis James portrays a most noble, and a most tragic Lear. James makes a grand entrance in Act 1 -- leading with his chin, fists on his hips, his breast filled with pomp and circumstance - as he prepares to divide his kingdom into three. In every subsequent scene in which James is present, he seems progressively and believably older and more frail, and as his wits begin to turn, James uses his hands in a seeming attempt to prevent his own head from cracking.

James is unfortunately undermined by the raging storm in Act 3, as the sound and lighting effects blow Lear's demands of nature right out of the theater. This unfortunate undermining (be it by the lights, the sounds, or some lesser action occurring upstage) occurs several times throughout the play, leaving the audience confused and unfocused as to where they should place their eyes, and to whom they should lend their ears. But James captures the audience's attention again when he enters the stage bedecked with weeds, plucking petals from a small yellow daisy. His voice cracks and squeaks with words of wise gibberish, his eyes are miraculously sunken, and he appears to be truly mad as he runs offstage crying "Sa sa sa sa!" In his final scene, James drags the strangled Cordelia (Zehra Berkman) onstage by one of her arms, howling in such a manner that welled tears in my eyes. I nearly burst smilingly.

In all of Shakespeare's plays, there are moments for which the audience waits. In Lear, I wait for the plucking of Gloucester's eyes. The Shotgun Players rightly choose to blind the audience during the climax of this scene. The Duke of Cornwall, played by an intriguingly cruel Drew Anderson, stands with his back to the audience as he pulls Gloucester's eyes from his sockets. This is a good decision, as something so obscene and so incensing rides the uncomfortable line between horror and hilarity. Gloucester (John Mercer) is then revealed, bleeding rings and all, and the audience is left to the wonder of their imaginations.

Of mention is Trish Mulholland, who plays a wonderfully wicked Goneril. Of all the cast, Mulholland most impressively speaks the speech, as her lines fall trippingly from the tongue. Her actions have clear motive, and she succeeds in connecting with the other actors on the stage. As much as James' portrayal of Lear moves me, I feel as though he presents a series of soliloquies, rather than actions and interactions upon the stage. I did not even feel a connection between Lear and his Fool, although I found Katja Rivera an interesting Fool to watch. Rivera wore bloomers and a cup, permitting her to make the most out of the Fool's many sexual puns, be it by signaling, grabbing, or knocking on her newfound masculinity. She also has an interesting way of surveying the perimeter of the stage when she is present, but not speaking, in what I would call a sideways crabwalk. Again, it is an outward spectacle in a play that cries out for insight.

Coleridge writes:
"Kent is, perhaps, the nearest to perfect goodness in all Shakespeare's characters. There is an extraordinary charm in a bluntness.goodness of heart is apparent.

I found myself uncharmed by Eric Burns' portrayal of Kent. After the performance, the actors filled the stage for a most-appreciated Q&A. Burns took this time to explain his motivation for Kent, stating that he watched "a lot of CNN," in preparation, and in effect, modeled his character after Colin Powell, in that his Kent should seem as though he would lay down his life for his leader. I can understand this interpretation, regardless of my own political views, but I was not sold on the result. Their was a tinge of sarcasm in Burns' tone as I listened to him defend the newly banished Cordelia, and as Kent, himself, was banished, his tone was almost as though he could care less. James is undoubtedly blunt in his delivery of lines, but his motive is questionable, leaving Lear open to taking a bullet in the Shotgun Players' presentation.

James, like many of the actors, finds his footing about halfway into the production. As a critic, I try to review a play as soon as it opens, so that people can make a more informed theatrical decision based on my grain of salt. As a human being, I understand that the first few nights of a production can double as rehearsals. I have faith that this troupe will come together in the next few weeks, and the actors will achieve a mode of communication that will prove that this production is about something, and that something quite grand can come of it.

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