Ross Lehman (left) and Larry Yando
Ross Lehman (left) and Larry Yando Credit: Liz Lauren

Larry Yando as Lear. Hotly anticipated.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of King Lear, directed by Barbara Gaines and featuring Yando in the title role, was counted as a highlight in all the fall arts preview sections, the Reader‘s included. Playing Lear is generally regarded as a mature actor’s rite of passage—a kind of late-life theatrical bar mitzvah. If a turn as Hamlet announces a young performer’s emergence into Shakespearean manhood, then taking on the famously exhausting role of the old king who throws away his kingdom constitutes proof that the man is ready to become a lion.

And who better to undergo that transformation than Yando? Thousands of holiday theatergoers love this guy—probably without quite knowing it—for his annual appearances as Scrooge in the Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol. (Yando’s smiling face is already plastered on CTA buses in anticipation of his seventh go at the role.) But he’s also established significant gravitas in less crowd-pleasing works, like August Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, which tore up Writers Theatre’s tiny second space last spring with Yando as Edgar, an aging military officer in steep, ugly decline. And though he’s not generally thought of as a Shakespeare specialist, Yando has accumulated a good many credits doing the canon. The actor gave me my favorite Jaques (he of the “All the world’s a stage” speech) when he gave the character a Beat cool in a 2008 As You Like It, also at Writers.

All of the above are bitter souls, and Yando is particularly well fitted for bitter. Long-faced and lean-bodied, with hooded eyes and an expanse of forehead roomy enough to accommodate row on row of pained creases between its scooped-out temples, he can be the archetypal, in-the-bones embodiment of acrimony. Yet there’s always more to it than that in a Yando performance. There’s fear. And weakness. Self-loathing. And cosmic disappointment. When Yando’s eyes go watery-wide and his lips draw back in a certain hollow way, you know that Scrooge or Edgar understands that life is out to kill him, and he has no defense against it other than a tough show.

You’d expect this faculty to lend itself nicely to a portrayal of Lear, the inadequate king whose “best and soundest,” in the estimation of one of his three daughters, “hath been but rash.” Lear’s crucial act of folly, handing his realm over to those daughters while he still lives, can be read as the act of a man who’s begun to suspect that he’s not—maybe never was—much good at ruling yet still wants to be honored for what he never achieved. Dividing his kingdom, putting his fate at the tender mercy of others, is his bid to assure himself that he’s loved in spite of all.

Of course, he ends up finding out far more than he wants to know. Cordelia, the only daughter with a sense of duty (which Lear should’ve settled for at the start), is off serving as queen of France, leaving nasty sisters Goneril and Regan in charge. It’s the blackest of black comedy when, in an exchange that makes you thank God for nursing homes, they start whittling Dad’s retinue from 100 knights to 50, and from there on down, finally, to Regan’s “What need one?” Lear is forced out into a storm, along with a few marginal types like himself (among them his Fool, who keeps calling him “fool”), where he tries and fails to stay sane.

Chicago’s foremost interpreter of weltschmerz should be able to make something astonishing of the tale. But the astonishment turns out to be that he doesn’t. Yando supplies exactly half of a great Lear here, and it’s not the half you’d suppose. He’s superb in the show’s brilliant early sequences (which take place in the confines of an equally brilliant set by Mark Bailey): Gaines introduces him as a petulant child, clicking and busting successive remotes while searching his sound system for the Sinatra song he wants to hear; dancing, oblivious to all, when he finally finds it; and waltzing himself out of the room when the grown-ups, his advisers, barge in looking angry. A little later he responds to unexpected news with a feet-stamping hissy fit and, in a move that resonates damningly, rips the shoulder strap from the gown of one of his errant daughters.

Ironically, it’s precisely when Yando could be using his gift for bitterness that the trouble starts. He overacts so egregiously during and after the storm—that is, during and after Lear’s descent into madness—that you find yourself admiring his nerve, if not enjoying, understanding, empathizing with, or learning from it. After a point he’s all howls of anguish and awkward baby steps, as if despair somehow affected the tendons in the knees. It’s garish and, worse, pointless. Talk about cosmic disappointment.

Yando isn’t alone in his sudden surge of poor judgment. Far out of step with Bianca LaVerne Jones and Jessiee Datino, who offer sharp performances as Goneril and Regan respectively, Nehassaiu deGannes gives us a Cordelia who apparently thinks she’s Joan of Arc. (Talk about declamatory.) Jesse Luken is similarly overwrought as Edmond, the evil bastard of the piece. Others, like Nathan M. Hosner (Duke of Albany), Lance Baker (Duke of Cornwall), Michael Aaron Lindner (the blinded Earl of Gloucester), and Steve Haggard (Edgar, the good legitimate son of the piece), do themselves proud by showing some restraint. Meanwhile, Ross Lehman is almost too good as the Fool, seeming to flash through the play like some magical fish. In retrospect, I think Gaines got the casting wrong for this Lear. What we really need is a version with Lehman as the king and a lean, bitter-looking actor as his wise fool.