Chicago Theatre Review
A Man More Sinn’d Against Than Sinning
King Lear – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
With its compelling characters, overwhelming spectacle and profoundly sad, tragic story, there are few dramas as intense or moving as Shakespeare’s sad, bloody story of an elderly king who’s betrayed by his own daughters. Written roughly between 1604 and 1606, Shakespeare’s play is believed to be based upon a story in Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577). His “Leir of Britain,” about an aging mythological Celtic monarch who divides his kingdom between his three daughters, based on their profession of love for him, is much like Shakespeare’s tragic play. The Bard’s Gloucester subplot is thought to be inspired by Philip Sidney’s “Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia.”
During the Restoration period, Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Lear” was considered too violent and depressing for public performance, so British poet laureate Nahum Tate wrote a revised “History of King Lear,” which eliminated the character of the Fool and provided a happier ending. However, by the early 1700’s this romanticized version was so criticized that theatre companies returned to Shakespeare’s original script. To date “King Lear” has not only received countless noteworthy stage productions (including Goodman Theatre’s 2006 production that starred Stacy Keach), but it’s been adapted to film, television, opera and ballet, as well. The role of Lear is considered one of theatre’s most demanding and has been played by such heavyweights as Richard Burbage (for whom it’s said Shakespeare created the role), Edmund Kean, Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud and Paul Scofield. Today the drama not only challenges actors, directors and theatre technicians, but it’s an almost surefire box office draw, as well.
CST’s founder and artistic director Barbara Gaines directs her third production of this tragic play to open the company’s 28th season. After witnessing the natural effects of old age on her dear, ailing mother, Ms. Gaines found new inspiration for creating this contemporary “King Lear.” Motivated, also, by hearing “Where Do You Go (When it Starts to Rain),” an obscure Frank Sinatra recording, Ms. Gaines decided to include snippets from this and other recordings by “Ol‘ Blue Eyes” in her production. By utilizing Sinatra’s music as a soundtrack for Lear’s story and costuming the play in modern dress, today’s audiences will find Shakespeare’s drama very relevant.
While portions of the original text have wisely been cut, the play still feels a little long, clocking in at nearly three hours, with intermission. But the strength of the piece is certainly palpable. This play speaks volumes about family, aging and dementia, power, justice and forgiveness. The most important theme stressed in Ms. Gaines’ production is how blind people often become, not only in the literal sense but figuratively, as well. Often times one misses, as Lear does, those situations that exist right before his eyes. Not seeing that Cordelia, Lear’s youngest, daughter, is his most loving and sincerely honest of his three children results in tragedy, as does Gloucester’s inability to see his bastard son, Edmund, for the cruel, conniving young man he’s become. The King’s ability to see the plight of the homeless only occurs once he’s also joined their ranks. The examples are endless.
Ms. Gaines has cast Larry Yando, one of Chicago’s best actors, to portray Lear. Mr. Yando is familiar, not only to CST audiences for his many wonderful characters, but also for playing Scrooge at the Goodman, Scar in the national tour of Disney’s “The Lion King,” as well as countless other critically acclaimed, award-winning performances throughout the city. Barbara Gaines states that Larry Yando “is one of the greatest actors I’ve ever worked with” and that “he has earned this opportunity to do Lear.” The actor brings to this role his profound understanding of and ability to create a three-dimensional character, his talent using language to paint vivid pictures with words and a genuine honesty that makes everything he says and does immediate, accessible and honest.
Other standouts in this impressive production are Michael Aaron Lindner as Gloucester. Here’s another actor whose chameleon-like ability enables him to transform within every role, allowing Lindner to reinvent himself in each show. As a likable, sadistically-abused father, Mr. Lindner offers one of the most memorable characters in this production as Gloucester. Kevin Gudahl, another of Chicago’s hardest-working actors, plays the macho Duke of Kent. Banished for protesting Lear’s ill treatment of his youngest daughter, Kent secretly returns to court disguised as Caius, a faithful, new servant, in order to serve and protect his King. Popular area actor Ross Lehman plays Lear’s companion, the Fool, with his usual warmth, natural charm and impish good humor. Mr. Lehman is the ultimate character actor, delighting audiences once again with the compassion and devotion he showers upon his destitute, senile old master.
As Gloucester’s two sons, Steve Haggard is quite wonderful playing the innocent Edgar with earnestness and empathy, and infusing his disguised character of Tom O’Bedlam with wit and dry humor. Newcomer to CST, hunky Jesse Luken gleefully relishes portraying the selfish, evil, hedonistic and manipulative bastard son, Edmund. As Lear’s sons-in-law, Nathan Hosner creates an intelligent, multi-layered Duke of Albany, who grows in stature during his time on stage; and Lance Baker is impossible to ignore, resisting the urge to simply play the Duke of Cornwall as the bad guy.
Less successful in this production are the three actresses playing Lear’s daughters. Jessiee Datino is the best of the lot as Regan, but she, Bianca LaVerne Jones and Nehassaiu deGannes rely too heavily on stereotypical, almost soap opera-like personas. Their characters are two-dimensional, predictable and ultimately uninteresting to watch.
The technical production values in Ms. Gaines‘ “King Lear” are stellar, in particular Michael Gend’s exciting lighting design, Lindsay Jones’ often deafening palette of sound and Mark Bailey’s costumes and unique scenic designs, complete with a real, drencher of a rainstorm that soak the actors right onstage.
With its unflinching look at aging, family relationships and the contrasting power to destroy or forgive, Shakespeare’s early 17th century drama still has much to say to contemporary audiences. Barbara Gaines‘ superb interpretation of this world-famous drama, set in the modern-day world, peppered with the music and lyrics of Frank Sinatra and brought to life by a cast of mostly exceptional actors and theatre magicians, is a production worth enjoying. It’s a fitting opening to one more season of risk-taking, innovative, professional theatre on Navy Pier.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 17-November 9 by Chicago Shakespeare Theater in the CST Courtyard theater space on Navy Pier, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 312-595-5600 or by visiting www.Chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.