Shakespeare Repertory

It takes a ton of energy to keep King Lear from sinking under the immense sorrow of its story. An unrelenting onslaught of crimes against humanity, most of them senseless, King Lear is a play in which the bitter negations of “nothing,” “no more,” and “never” lose all abstraction and turn as hard as adamant. The play continually promises to grant our hopes–and as often thwarts them. It’s no surprise that, from 1680 until the 19th century, theaters often made Lear end happily, as the story did in Shakespeare’s sources.

But Shakespeare meant to take no prisoners. No Greek hero falls farther or faster than Lear. Impulsively ceding his kingdom to his children, then stubbornly rejecting Cordelia, the one good daughter, when she refuses to proclaim her filial piety in public, the ex-king is piteous beyond words by the end; with his power and pride gone and his daughters turned to beasts, his reason goes too, almost like an afterthought.

Unequaled in his power to connect extremes, Shakespeare turns that final dislocation into a curious mercy: only when he’s deranged does Lear discover how little care he took of the poor, his new peers. “Reason not the need,” he cries, a plea to be heeded by anyone who tries to exorcise this tragedy’s pessimism or deny its plea for endurance.

A King Lear done by half measures is worse than no Lear at all. I’ve seen half a dozen, and until this marvel by Shakespeare Repertory none has challenged the heights of this Himalayan tragedy. Michael Philippi’s perilously raked stage resembles a mountain; the great slope actually cracks as if shattered by an earthquake. Few productions have found a more persuasive physical metaphor for the story onstage.

Shakespeare Repertory’s commanding staging is not well served by its poster slogan: “A King Becomes a Man” implies that Lear, like Job, is punished for a purpose. We may find a semblance of motivation in the fairy-tale evil Shakespeare unleashes, and some cruel truths may surface through the suffering. But nothing can genuinely explain Lear’s pitiless waste of humanity. Fortunately, Barbara Gaines refuses to filter this play through any kind of theory: this magnificent production is neither conceptual nor updated. Nothing comes between us and Shakespeare but the acting and–as in the Rep’s awesome Cymbeline–that is uniformly compelling.

Richard Kneeland’s Lear is flawless. Where the late James O’Reilly played Lear, unforgettably, like a force of nature, Kneeland (who has performed the role often) presents Lear from the inside out: changes are felt before they’re acted. A tower of rage when checked–he stomps on the prostrate Goneril as he curses her–the gravel-voiced Kneeland later softens into a demented dotage that feels as sudden as a stroke. Yet from the start Kneeland has suggested the king’s dread of the madness that later engulfs him: what happens has the inevitability of Beethoven’s music.

Kneeland is lucky to be surrounded by Chicago’s best actors, in a staging shaped by our top designers. Greg Vinkler hits a career high as the all-suffering Gloucester, a role as heartbreaking as that of Lear; Vinkler reinvents the loyal old man’s monumental pain. Henry Godinez plays Gloucester’s elaborately evil bastard son, Edmund, with perverse fervor. Edmund’s intense malice finds a moral antidote in his brother Edgar’s heroism; Kevin Gudahl anchors Edgar’s valiance in raw flesh-and-blood fears. Peter Aylward, another actor who grounds each moment in a telling reality, plays the faithful Earl of Kent with almost scary spontaneity, as if refusing to recognize a scene’s outcome until it happens.

Thanks to Barbara E. Robertson and Kristine Thatcher, the evil daughters Goneril and Regan–too often played like Cinderella’s rapacious stepsisters–evolve into evil, desperately inventing their cruelties as they become drunk with power. If this approach makes these two more real, it also honors the playwright’s refusal to trade in easy expectations. As the redemptive “true” daughter Cordelia, Susan Hart wisely suggests both a storybook heroine and a proto-feminist.

Despite his name, the bittersweet Fool offers little comic relief; through dangerous jokes he drives home to Lear the folly of his abdication and neglect. Dampening his usual rambunctious comedy, Ross Lehman richly conveys the jester’s forlorn ineffectiveness; this self-effacing Fool knows he’s a mere gloss on an unstoppable disaster. Equally targeted work comes from Tom Mula as the odious toady Oswald, David Massie as the vindictive Cornwall, and Richard Wharton as repentant Albany.

As we’d expect from Shakespeare Rep, this King Lear offers more than just unrepentant straightforward Shakespeare–it’s a feast for the senses. After all, its standards were set by the late designer Michael Merritt, a legendary act to follow. But Philippi’s inspired set, Lloyd Brodnax King’s supple score, and Nan Zabriskie’s sumptuous medieval costumes (eerily, Lear’s regal raiments are echoed by his later rags) continue Merritt’s tradition. So does Rita Pietraszek’s lighting, which transforms the stage into everything from a shadowy forest floor to the sheeny parquet of a palace. But it’s the fusion of that lighting–so subtle and elaborate as to resemble painting–with Robert Neuhaus’s astounding sound design that makes for a Lear that’s technically marvelous; the storm scene is like a rerun of Hurricane Andrew.

But more than the pyrotechnics and performances, what I’ll remember about Gaines’s King Lear is the way it underlines the play’s compassion as much as its horrors, especially in comments on our homeless. The beggars we see throughout look uncomfortably familiar; when Lear himself becomes one, it seems to serve us right.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.