WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is one of the icons of English theater. But rather than placing it on a pedestal, Northern Stage’s production, which opened Saturday at the Barrette Center for the Arts, not only plumbed its literary and emotional depths, it proved downright exciting – and even scary.
Jaime Horton took on the title role, one of the art form’s most revered. The local actor and playwright lived and breathed Lear, as he took the English king on a journey from self-obsessed monarch to being broken by his own daughters and descending into madness, finding redemption only shortly before death.
Horton’s Lear was initially arrogant to the point of repulsiveness, and he became angrier and less seeing with each of his two elder daughters’ rejections. Rather than face himself, he descends into insanity, only to be awakened by his youngest daughter. Horton took the audience with him through this frightening journey to the riveting finale. It was angering and it was heart wrenching, and it was Horton’s first Lear.
And the Northern Stage production, directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, is powerful in its directness in telling this tragedy. Physically, Brown-Fried has created a spectacular staging, including times that are genuinely unnerving, but nothing deflects or detracts from the power of Shakespeare’s words. This is powerful theater.
The story is of Lear, king of England, who asks his three daughters to express their love for him in anticipation of dividing his kingdom between them. His elder daughters Goneril (a scarily hard Cassandra Bissel) and Regan (a more sly Jolly Abraham) fawn over him with excessive and dishonest praise while the youngest, Cordelia (an earnest and sympathetic Stella Asa), promises him only the love of a daughter.
Lear’s ego bruised, he banishes Cordelia and splits her land between her sisters. When the Earl of Kent (Cherene Snow in a dimensional performance) objects to Cordelia’s punishment, she (in this production) is also banished. (The gender is seamlessly changed for several characters in this color-blind production.)
When Lear attempts to split his time between his two elder daughters, he slowly discovers their deception. With only his fool (a wily and witty Jon Norman Schneider) to help him hold on to his royal dignity, Lear begins descending into madness.
In a subplot, Edmund (an arrogant and deliciously seductive Damian Thompson), the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester (a sympathetic Starla Benford in another gender switch), plots his political rise at the expense of the legitimate son Edgar (an endearing Robert David Grant). Edmund’s plot includes seducing Goneril and Regan – and he finds both more than willing.
As this production proved so convincing, I found myself so engrossed that I almost totally forgot how the plot went and ended as if it were my first my first time. (It wasn’t.) So I’ll refrain from giving away more.
Bill Clarke’s scenic design, with dramatic and expressive lighting by Dan Kotlowitz and unsettling sound design by Kate Marvin, created a wonderfully abstract atmosphere for this tragedy to unfold. Dina El-Aziz’ costumes too were abstract and timeless. The physical explosiveness, though, brought everything right to the moment.
Some of the extravagant effects felt a little over the top at Saturday’s opening night performance, but did nothing to impede the storytelling. Not surprising some speech, particularly when emotionally wrought, was hard to understand, though the diction was largely excellent throughout. The physical fight between Edgar and Edmund was excitingly choreographed (by David S. Leong) but went on a bit too long, save for fans of World Wide Wrestling. These criticisms, however, are incidental.
Northern Stage’s “King Lear” is a brilliant reminder of how Shakespeare is the greatest playwright in the English language. As I told Artistic Director Carol Dunne that evening, “This is theater!”