Monday, July 27, 2009

King Lear

King Lear, featuring Stacy Keach, under the direction of Robert Falls, at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.
The play opens with a scene at the "court" of an authoritarian ruler, maybe in a Caucasian, ex-Soviet republic, or in the Balkans. The image is one of unbridled lust - for life, power, money, gregarious sociality, drinks and food, flesh of women, all that (or, to use the Aristotelian word, generalized incontinence). The set-up is marvelous: they are all dressed like "biznismen-patriota" (businessmen-patriots), to use an expression from Emir Kusturica's movie, "Black Cat, White Cat." And, indeed, soon after it begins, they all start dancing on a Goran Bregovic, or Saban Bajramovic, or Boban Markovic tune (which is the music of the Kusturica movies). The hall in which everybody is even has a portrait of a young King Lear, with the tri-colored flag shining like rays behind his head (a nifty touch!); which would be the typical portrait of the eternally young and virile dictator; which might have been inspired by Ceausescu portraits.

As it turns out - as I learned later - Robert Falls' staging was indeed shaped by the influence Kusturica's movies had on him, and especially "Underground."

Well, what a brilliant move, from Robert Falls! It would be hard to imagine a better setting for this tale of unchecked power spiralling into madness... Where? - in a Western, checks-and-balances, disinfected, democratic state? If one wants to see a tale of madness, one has to only think of the war that raged in what was then the state of Yugoslavia falling apart - in the 1990s. Or, as mentioned, of some of the authoritarian leaders of the Caucasus.

Yet this great beginning, and set-up, is also a moment that is not utilized to the utmost of its potential. This would be the moment - this, when we all see how the court was, before the King's fall, that the "reasons" for the ensuing madness should be visible. And the set-up, as mentioned, is brilliant - that generalized incontinence, lack of limits, everything is permitted, everything is sure, I can have everything - I can even give all this up, it is work, and just enjoy the fruits of power. Yet, once he gives away the power, its fruits also go away, and those who surrounded him, gorging on these fruits, will turn out to be, naturally, beings devoid of any moral fiber.
Instead, the way it is played, the King seems to already struggle with sudden, short attacks of madness - from the beginning. It is as if this is a neurological problem of sorts; but that loses from the general human, moral dimension of the play (in this viewer's perspective). Thus, this seems to be a directorial choice, rather than the actor's. I thought, at first, that Mr Keachwas just tired (an incredibly intensive program with this play, plus his illness of the recent years; but although that might all be true, this is a directorial choice).

The play continues with the same theme - being set in the Balkans, somewhere; a theme that, for most of the time, continues to work very, very well indeed; and some of the gregarious lust for life that is in that music that I mentioned, and in that behavior (good or ill), will continue to inject the whole play with life, humor, violence. Thus, clothes are never just clothes. Money and power - and lust - is made visible in how people dress, talk. The murders throughout the play do not seem out of place, although it always surprises the normal spectator to discover just how violent Shakespeare is. But within this world of unbridled passions and desires, they have their right place. And fortunately, this staging, just like Zefirelli's Hamlet with Mel Gibson in the main role,possesses life, which is somewhat lacking from too many takes on Shakespeare, which might have been neutered by awe, classicism, scholarly examination, or technicality. And once life is removed from it - that dirty, tragic, visceral real life, what remains of Shakespeare - isn't that, what truly churns our stomachs when seeing a play? What remains is awe, respect, a bit of snobbery - but not a cathartic, living thing. No wonder this particular staging has had enormous success, both here in DC, and in its previous runs. It is alive.

The naked bodies that occur at times in the play do not seem more gratuitous than one might expect it from a contemporary piece. (What is it with contemporary theatre, that directors feel compelled to show a naked body, whether it is called or uncalled-for by the play? Do they feel that they mare doing something special? That they are taking a step towards "reality? "Breaking barriers? There are no barriers anymore to break; there haven't been, for quite a while. What is it, then?)
Well, in this staging of the play, within this Balkans theme, it works, for most of the time - especially in the first part of the play; for example, in the setting of Lear's meeting with Edgar, who is disguised as a madman (what else?), a beggar - when the famous lines ensue:

Storm still

KING LEAR [to Edward]
Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer
with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies.
Is man no more than this? Consider him well. (...) Thou art the thing itself:
unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor bare,
forked animal as thou art. Off, off, you lendings!
come unbutton here.

Tearing off his clothes

He tears his clothes off, the King, indeed, and this only works to strengthen what he just said; it is not vulgar - not vulgar, but derelict.
(Yet after the break, perhaps also because of a glass of wine, it did not seem that way anymore - appropriate, within the seams of the play.)
Overall, and especially in the first part, the use of the bodies is coherent with both the play, and the setting - and, by the way, there is a lot of violence (as in treason, passion, desire), also in what regards sexuality, in Shakespeare (well, just think Hamlet). And, by the way, there is a lot of such violence in the Bible, too.
But enough about this! One will get the idea that this is what the play is about - and it is not.

As said, the Balkans theme works marvelously - the music, the costumes (superb!). The costume designer, Ana Kuzmanic, probably has some first-hand experience with the style and the atmosphere she helps recreate here.
There is even a marvelous scene in which some of the gangsters (i.e. Lear's daughters and their husbands) enter the stage in an early 90's Mercedes - very much like Dadi's (the businessman-patriot, remember) first apparition in "Black Cat, White Cat." Power, violence, money, sex - they are all one in the culture that Shakespeare describes, and they play an equally crucial role in Kusturica's works. (However, in Kusturica, they coexists with equally tremendous human warmth and caring... the "Slavic soul?" It just seems to me that those manifestations of gregarious love are not equally present in Shakespeare's works.)

There are certain brief moments, when the balance of the direction is lost - but for a very short time. For example: after the meeting between Lear and his "entourage," and Edgar, they all start moving towards a place to spend the night; and they move as one chain, holding each other's hands, following the rhythm of the music, almost mimicking a traditional chain dance(almost) - and it all works well. However, all of a sudden, instead of disappearing, they break away from each other, faces turned towards the back wall, then return to the front, and, in a line, each does, separately, some improvised, silly, irregular dance moves - why?
Or take the fact that, when Cordelia returns, towards the end of the play, to help her father, with the French troops, she is dressed in military gear, just like the five soldiers that accompany her, to suggest the army - yet this Cordelia, i.e. the particular actress playing her, is a thin, delicate (of tremendous inner strength, of course) woman; and the Cordelia of the beginning of the play does not match the bellicose pose that her later uniform wants to inspire; and, of course, she dies - and then she is returned, naked, and thus vulnerable, delicate, innocent, again. Somehow the arch of the character seems slightly imbalanced.
And those soldiers accompanying her; they appear with her in various scenes - but between these various scenes, why do they change and vary their uniforms? To suggest different types of troops, different "arms?" Who would care?

Alltogether, this is a fiery staging - it engages the viewer, it is believable, and, for the most, is kept balanced (not an easy task) within the overall Balkans or Caucasian theme it assumes: - visually (costumes, set design), sound-wise (especially the music; but not only) etc.

What is essential, however, to the impression this particular staging of King Lear leaves is, of course, the quality of the acting. For this viewer, one of the most remarkable roles, in terms of depth, solidity, "tridimensional" inhabiting of the character, is that of the Earl of Kent/Caius, played by Steve Pickering (here with Mr. Keach, at the end of the play).
Yet they are all very good, truly very good. One remembers a moment of wonderful modulations, in which meaning of text, tone of voice, and movement of body all described the same arch - and it was all only a few seconds. It seems that all too often is is quite difficult for actors to go beyond the technical aspects of the richness and complexity of the language in Shakespeare's plays, and reveal the true life they express - the music of the sentiment in that life; this viewer thinks he saw that life in one of Mr Keach's moments. Yet it was my impression that he was a little tired; his voice cracked, his madness, somewhat continuous - although more accentuated along the play, as required, yet too continuous still; the descent, as mentioned, from lust and unchecked power to powerlessness, from irresponsibility to madness, one would have loved to see it more emphatically illustrated. But that - I think again -was a directorial choice. All in all, I would like to emphasize how glad I felt to have this chance of seeing Mr. Keach in King Lear.

I do think it matters when you see a play. I saw it on a Tuesday, coming after an exhausting weekend (two shows on Sunday!?!), and a day's break. It seemed that the entire company only truly got into the atmosphere of the play after by the third scene, when King Lear already lives at Goneril's palace. There is a dynamic within an evening. There is a dynamic within the whole run of a play.
And this is why I intended to go see it again, this play. It was that good, I wanted to experience it again, and more. Acting, staging, music, costumes - phenomenal acting, strong across the board (with very good singing, even, and equally good fight choreography); directed by Mr Falls with clear intent and overall coherent style; accurate, that is, lavish, i.e. appropriate - set design; superb and rigorous, and thus hilarious if one knows how to look at them - costumes; brilliant sound design; and, again and again, from the non-speaking roles, to the main characters, superb, believable, and done-with-conviction acting (it looked like they really believed in this one).

Let me add here a few names, besides the actors already mentioned: Jonno Roberts (very solid, controlled yet emotions-eliciting performance, in the role of Edmund, the bastard son), Kim Martin-Cotten (in the role of Goneril), Chris Genebach(as the Duke of Cornwall, Regan's husband; wonderfully and appropriately sleazy, slick, and violent), Joaquin Torres (Edgar, the older son - especially in the madman role, and thus maybe a bit imbalanced overall); Dieterich Gray (Oswald, Goneril's steward - role played as a DJ/servant/skateboarding messenger; he knew he was funny, and it was funny; maybe a bit too spoiled by the public's presumably constant enthusiastic response to his character, the way it was constructed.)

Two more things:

One of the most powerful scenes, in terms of directing, was after the battle; a seemingly endless succession of simple people: old women dressed for mourning, tired men; young medics from the battlefield) kept carrying and bringing in, unto the stage, "bodies," wrapped in white rolls some men, some women, some small children - all alike, and all never ending; unto a stage as desolate and exhibiting mindless destruction, as any of the "stages" of the wars of the past twenty years. This silent, unceasing, monotonous as life, slow revelation of the sheer immensity and unbearable nature of the tragedy of the senseless murders entailed by every war, was truly one of the most powerful moments in this staging. Especially if it does bring to one's mind relatively fresh memories of mindless bloodshed - in this viewer's case, of the wars of former Yugoslavia, in the 90's.

And a note that is not related to the play, but to the audience: they loved it, were truly impressed by it; I could hear them describing how enthralled they were, during the intermission. Yet, at the end, there was only one set of applause, albeit prolonged (yet not too much); no curtain calls, no "bis"... What is with the Shakespeare Theatre audience? This is not the first time I experience the same thing. We applaud a bit, then we leave. It is not that people in Washington, DC do not know how to be enthusiastic: the numerous evenings with ovations, curtain calls and whistles, at the Washington National Opera, or the National Symphony Orchestra, stand witness to that. Is this something specific to the Shakespeare Theatre audience, the culture that formed around going to see plays at the Shakespeare Theatre? This viewer found himself feeling embarrassed, even hurt, by this. Don't they know that, for someone who is performing, besides the obvious professional, material recompense, the deepest, true reward is in the reaction one receives from the public?

Acting, singing, juggling - any sort of such live, interpretive art is in fact an enterprise that happens not only with the actors (players, singers), there, on the stage; instead, the artistic act happens between the ones there and the ones i the public. The artistic act is one of communication, of co-participation. One does not have to be saying or even doing something. If you've used public transportation, you know that presence is what creates a certain atmosphere: think of an empty metro car. The atmosphere that is created by the co-participation in the act,in the emotions, in the moment, is central to any artistic endeavor - even to painting. As the one on the stage, you do sense the tension, the pleasure or indifference of the audience; however, you do not have the certitude, confirmation of their part, until the end, when they become loud, active participants - when they applaud, whistle, or boo. That is the reward. This viewer has been accustomed to seeing all - even the lesser attempts (all artistic acts always remain but attempts) - being rewarded; let alone a powerful performance.

FAZIT: Yes, I wanted to see it again, albeit did not manage to go, in the end; it was that good.

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