When I first read “King Lear” I fell in love with the moral of the story. The first time I saw “King Lear” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival I wept. It was one of the most cathartic theatre experiences of my life. "King Lear” has a way of changing theatre for me – every time. As I watched the festival’s 2015 production of King Lear on the Adam’s Theatre stage this year I had an entirely different experience. Director Sharon Ott’s version was, for me, more thought provoking than gut wrenching. I have not stopped thinking about the layers in the story of “King Lear” for days after watching this year’s production.
Oh there was drama. Lear’s oldest daughters Goneril (Melinda Pfundstein) and Regan (Saren Nofs- Snyder) were deliciously wicked and dangerous. Tony Amendola’s King Lear was outrageously self-indulgent, giving into every emotional whim. David Pichette’s fool was over demonstrative, almost to a fault. Yes, there was drama. After all, it is a tragedy.
But, there was also something restrained and simmering about this production from the beginning. Each actor brought depth to their characters, albeit more subtle at times than I expected.
Long before the last audience member took their seat for the first act, the mood was set as King Lear’s three daughters prowled the austere set designed by scenic designer Vicki M. Smith. Silent, thoughtful, scheming, and pacing Regan, Goneril and Cordelia (Kelly Rogers) reveal their inner personality on a stage with little more than a desolate tree and a giant map. Sit down early for this play, there is much to be discovered in these moments before the play begins.
As King Lear enters the stage we begin to see that the royal family’s extreme personality traits have begun to make them all fools and in the end it will be the downfall of a bloodline. But first a king, who is ready to be done with responsibility and give it all to his daughters, devises a selfish test. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most, that we our largest bounty may extend.”
When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to make false flattering statements of love in order to win a kingdom, thus begins the king’s descent into foolishness and madness all for the sake of damaged pride. Cordelia is banished from the kingdom, but not before the King of France declares his love for her and spirits her off to France as his bride.
Goneril and Regan are left with kingdoms of their own and their father has their flattery to keep him company. But with Cordelia and her supporters gone, Goneril and Regan are left to betray first their father and then their husbands and finally each other as they scheme to gain power and land.
Meanwhile, in the wings lurks Edmund (Brendan Marshall-Rashid), the illegitimate son of a jovial Earl of Gloucester (James Newcomb). Marshall-Rashid’s Edmund is a charismatic schemer that is impossible not to love even in his complete lack of moral obligation as he ruins his brother and father and eventually Goneril and Regan. Marshall-Rashid’s clever and exciting performance makes this wicked opportunist one of the play’s best schemers in a play full of schemers.
His brother Edgar (Tyler Pierce) is his polar opposite and Pierce does a great job of shifting with ease from noble son to crazy Tom to noble son.
As the play goes on we learn the value of loyalty. The true heroes of this story reveal themselves with their loyalty to a king gone mad. The King’s Fool, ever the King’s conscience, follows him even to theedge of madness and onto the storm plagued countryside. Pichette’s fool jumps about the stage with wise and daring statements of truth wreathed in sorrow. He alone seems free to speak of the King’s foolish behavior and actions without revenge and banishment from the king. “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” the fool reprimands the King while guarding him throughout his journey from King to an outcast.
This version of “King Lear” was well cast, something at which the Utah Shakespeare Festival seems to become more and more flawless each year. The cast, director and artistic staff told this story well. It is wonderful to know that “King Lear” can be told in so many ways and its story and message never grows old, at least not under the expertise of the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
I may not have been weeping in this version, but I was smiling with this deep sense of satisfaction at witnessing the emotional roller coaster of my favorite Shakespeare tragedy on a beautiful summer evening in Southern Utah.
I did feel a little sorry for the stranger next to me who whispered at the end to me, “That was good, but I wish Cordelia did not have to die.” So do I, fellow theater goer. I wish it every time. But that is what makes King Lear so heart-wrenchingly good.