Last week, almost exactly 450 years after William Shakespeare was born, Seattle Shakespeare Company opened its production of King Lear, directed by Sheila Daniels. It’s often thought of as one of the Bard’s most difficult plays to stage, to watch, to read, and to act—it takes incredible skill and stamina to play the king gone mad. Noted British Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate once wrote in The Telegraph, “It’s sometimes said that the problem with the part of Lear is that by the time you are old enough to play it, you are too old to play it.” Seattle Shakes made a spot-on choice in casting Dan Kremer as Lear; the strength of his performance fuels this play. The solo or paired scenes are the strongest and most existentially powerful, while the show’s ensemble work lacks the nuance necessary for a seamless production.
The premise sounds simple: In a fit of narcissism (perhaps the first sign of his descent into madness), King Lear tests his three daughters to see who loves him most. Goneril (Linda K. Morris) and Regan (Debra Pralle) flatter him, but young Cordelia (Elinor Gunn) refuses and is banished with no dowry. Then there’s the respectable Duke of Gloucester (the laudable Michael Winters), who is struggling with his two sons, the wicked and cunning Edmund (Eric Riedmann) and the honorable Edgar (Jorge Chacon, who also blows it away playing Old Tom). When Goneril and Regan throw their father out of the castle he wanders into a raging storm, meeting Old Tom in a shepherd’s hut. His madness escalates, and soon follows one of the most notorious scenes in Shakespeare—the king stripped down to his most animalistic state. Okay, not so simple given the intertwined plots, but the themes of greed, morality, death, justice and nature are easy to follow.
There are a lot of noteworthy performances in this production, including Amy Thone as the wise Duchess of Kent, as well as Morris and Pralle, who inflect their speech with the perfect amounts of snide mocking and self-indulgent rage. As Edmund, Riedmann easily switches between his two selves. In front of his father and brother he is a stuttering, bumbling, idiot-like boy—the picture of innocence and ignorance. However, as soon as he is alone and commanding the stage, his sneers, piercing eyes and cold voice reveal his devious intentions to cheat his brother out of a rightful inheritance.
Kremer’s character arc is most crucial to the play, and his subtle hints at his approaching madness are not only believable, they are emotionally moving. The way he slips between lucidity and lunacy is not a caricature; rather, it seems to be an unconscious transition. Sudden, explosive outbursts are followed by tenderness towards his daughters, then ricochets back into anger on a dime. And then there is Old Tom, or as Lear calls him, “the thing itself,” the atavistic truth of human nature. Chacon’s physicality—the hunched, loping movement around the stage exemplifies this animal nature, as does his broken speech and finicky interaction with other human beings.
Director Shelia Daniels co-designed the set with Craig Wollam, and its simplicity serves the production well. Other than a few chairs and triple-tiered rolling scaffolding, the long white linen panels lining the back of the stage are the main, albeit subtle, focus. They make a beautiful background during the storm scene when a partial curtain covering the top half of the panels raises, and they grow in height. Coupled with lightning flashes, they belittle Lear, reducing him in size, emphasizing his mortality and the power of nature over human beings. Exemplary moments like this stood out so much that the scenes with more than three of four people were slightly disappointing, lacking the heft and pull of a single actor filling up the stage with their characters’ emotion, attitude and conviction. The people standing around were distracting, and interactions with lesser characters bordered a practice reading.
If you’ve never seen Shakespeare, or are a novice with Elizabethan performance, King Lear can be a little tedious, clocking in at almost three hours long. But the person I took with me had never seen nor read a Shakespeare play, and although he did admit the length made it a little tedious, he walked away noting that the play, “made him think about the way so many people go through life full of greed and anger,” an enduring lesson just as relevant today as it was 450 years ago.
King Lear runs through May 17. Tickets here. Above: Dan Kremer and Michael Winters in King Lear, photo by John Ulman.