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Review: ‘King Lear’ at the Dallas Theater Center

by Jerome Weeks 29 Jan 2013

It’s the Mt. Everest of Western drama; it took a co-production with Trinity Rep to bring King Lear to the Dallas Theater Center. The surprise is how quick, clean and clear it is. But the question is, does it reach the mountaintop?


“Every inch a king”: Brian McEleney as the title character in the Dallas Theater Center production of King Lear.

At the Dallas Theater Center, artistic director Kevin Moriarty has not shown any deep kinship with heavyweight dramas. The hardest, sharpest nugget of a drama he’s directed so far has been Fat Pig, Neil LaBute’s portrait of masculine cowardice. When the company did stage Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman — the only real tragedy to appear the past five seasons — it was handled by a guest director.

Clearly, Moriarty’s heart is with comedies and musicals. There’s no problem with that, but it’s a reason I wasn’t expecting anything austere and heartrending with the Theater Center’s current production of King Lear, William Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy of a king who loses his kingdom, his family and his mind. It’s a co-production with Providence’s Trinity Rep, where Moriarty was an associate artist and where it was staged in September. It’s also the last in the DTC’s four-year series of the Bard’s works.

With those earlier efforts, I’ve taken Moriarty to task for his “short attention-span Shakespeare,” the way his edited and updated scripts may make the plays more accessible but they’ve done so at some cost. They’ve betrayed an uneasiness with Shakespeare’s poetry and with the ability of individual actors to hold an audience’s attention — without a lot of intrusive showiness going on.

Yet this Lear turns out to be the cleanest, clearest, most straight-ahead staging of a Shakespeare play that Moriarty has offered. There are no airline crashes, no distracting pop tunes, no balloon drops, no teen-friendly gimmicks. I have to give Moriarty credit for his streamlining here: With Shakespeare’s civil war — plus the play’s many betrayals,  family breakdowns and murders — the DTC production is crisp, quick and comprehensible, probably even to those unfamiliar with the massive drama. (Some of what Moriarty has stripped out are the many obscure jokes that Lear and his Fool trade with each other.) Most of the theatrical effects and directorial choices — the contemporary setting, full-frontal nudity, non-traditional gender casting, an explosive storm — feel integral to Moriarty’s purpose. They kick in some compelling, emotional force to the proceedings.

That said, this Lear simply fails as a real tragedy. It’s sad and timely, yes, even moving at moments. But not a capital-T tragedy. By the end, it’s lost most of a tragedy’s moral dimension and becomes more of a plea for better elder care.

From the start when Lear disposes of his lands to his daughters, Brian McEleney’s king seems more cranky than proud or intemperate. And when his irritability is combined with shaking hands and reedy yelling, this, clearly, is a Lear for our Age of Alzheimer’s.

Moriarty is foregrounding the question of how we care for our elders, and that may well make this Lear affecting for some. [Full disclosure: My father died of Alzheimer’s two years ago.] But making Lear so old and querulous right from the opening scene means that McEleney’s Lear lacks the power and presence a tragic hero needs. A hero can’t be truly tragic unless he falls from some height, unless he seriously loses some noble aspect of himself (Hamlet is “the expectation and rose of the fair state”). Lear’s kingship doesn’t make him a hero; he needs the kind of personal authority he’s personally earned and we respect.

Foolishly, Lear gives his villainous daughters Goneril and Regan his lands and responsibilities, while still demanding power, love and respect – and thus he loses everything. But in the process,  Shakespeare gives Lear some of his greatest poetry, and Moriarty (with set designer Michael McGarty) unleashes some impressive effects.

McEleney’s performance is courageous — not just because of the nudity but for the sheer length of the role and the emotional nakedness and scope it demands (I hope I have his stamina at his age, whatever it is). Unfortunately, Moriarty muffles McEleney’s most powerful scene, Lear’s ‘madness on the heath.’ The distracted king runs away from his tormenting daughters and rises to a majestic, frightening, emotional peak, calling down cosmic forces to express his suffering — even as they reduce him to “a poor, bare, forked animal.”

That’s how it should play, at any rate. But the storm scene is infamous in theater lore for being tricky to pull off: You want all the thunder, wind and lightning you can get, but you also need for Lear to be heard. And we generally can’t hear McEleney. It’s not just the rain drowning him out (perhaps because he can’t wear a mike in the rain …  or when he’s completely naked). Moriarty has positioned the actor towards the back of the set, where he howls ineffectually.

Phyllis Kay as the Earl of Gloucester and Steven Walters as her son, Edgar

It’s only when things quiet down after the storm that McEleney comes into his own. He gets to play the comic and tender moments for all their worth. This is when Lear gains clarity and affection: He realizes that Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth), the daughter he thought too proud to declare her love for him, does indeed love him.

But then Moriarty makes one, last, odd, distracting choice. In the text, the Fool disappears sometime when he, the king and others hide out from the storm in a hovel. We never hear from the Fool again, and directors have to decide what to do with this once-chatty, now-silent character.

Moriarty keeps him around, transferring a few lines to him from those he’s cut. Perfectly fine, it’s a common, sensible choice. But at the very end — after Cordelia’s dead and Lear is consumed with grief — the king wails, “And my poor Fool is hang’d!”

Yet Moriarty has Stephen Berenson, the actor playing the fool, sit right next to McEleney. Which must mean that Moriarty believes that Lear is mad again; he doesn’t even recognize his longtime sidekick.

Not to be pedantic, but one can’t have a tragedy with a deluded hero. An Alzheimer’s-afflicted Lear doesn’t work as a tragedy because tragedies represent moral choices. The good people understand, too late, the evil that is happening, the mistakes they’ve made, and they try to correct them — only to die. They may die redeeming themselves, they may set the world right by destroying that evil, but they can only do that by knowing what’s happening, knowing what they’re doing, what they’re sacrificing. Otherwise, Lear gains no insight. We could have just left him, a sad mental case, raging out on the heath, and then gone home to wonder whether Obamacare will ever cover an extended stay in a nursing home.

As for the others in the cast, Lee Trull and Christie Vela are effective villains as Edmund and Goneril. Edmund is like Richard III in that he gets to address the audience, and it’s easy to amp up the Snidely Whiplash qualities. But in keeping with the streamlined nature of this production, Trull keeps Edmund’s highly theatrical nature under control; there’s an efficiency to his evil (even if the production’s fight choreography is generally too stylized and unconvincing).

With Edgar — Edmund’s half-brother and the good son of Gloucester — Stephen Walters is not particularly affecting when Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom, playing a weak-minded beggar so he can hide from his would-be killers. It’s only when Walters sheds that role to aid his blinded, suicidal mother that we sense family bonds being slowly, painfully re-formed. This comes roughly at the same time as Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia, making these scenes some of the most tender in Moriarty’s production.

Traditionally, though, Edmund doesn’t have a mother but a blinded, suicidal father to care for. Moriarty has cast Trinity Rep performer Phyllis Kay as the Earl of Gloucester. Some people feel this gender change makes hash of Shakespeare’s father-child parallels, but I think Kay, at first, brings a warm, welcome slant to the role. She’s a Hillary Clinton-esque figure, a powerful female minister who must also deal with a troubled family life, a woman who, like Lear, comes to recognize her mistake in believing and loving one child over another.

But strangely, Kay’s performance seems to flat-line emotionally — at least it did on opening night. Having a female victim suffer during Gloucester’s infamous ‘blinding’ scene may increase the pity and horror, although in this modern-dress version, a male victim would have brought home the Zero Dark Thirty nature of the proceedings more clearly, implicating America’s own involvement in torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

But it’s just here, when Gloucester is most vulnerable — and is determinedly seeking her own sad obliteration — that Kay doesn’t bring anything more. It’s makes for a seesaw effect — this is just when Walters and McEleney have started to rise to the emotional demands of their roles.

Still, I’m grateful to Moriarty for taking on this Mt. Everest of dramas; as indicated, I was struck by his approach, an approach that I’d previously discounted. But ultimately, this Lear lacks the cumulative effect of a great tragedy, the laying to waste of our preconceived notions and feelings, and the cleansing that comes after a wrenching storm.

Photos by Karen Almond