It was a sweltering night when I saw Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s latest FREE Shakespeare on the Common, but so absorbing and mighty was Will Lyman’s performance as KING LEAR that I hardly noticed the elements, save for the storm onstage, an epic tempest of rain and bruising wind, the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s mythically potent tragedy about a King and his three daughters a relationship upon which his universe turns.
Why this monumental tragedy for a midsummer night’s outing? CSC who has been treating the city to FREE Shakespeare on the Common for 20 seasons now, usually gives us breezier fare, but artistic director Steven Maler says they were finally ready to scale this “mountain” of a play, where insight comes at excruciating cost. It’s dark, but this production sheds light.
We first meet King Lear as a dashing, aging monarch who indulges his vanity and flexes his muscles by requiring each of his daughters to profess the extent of her love for him before deciding how to divide his kingdom. Ironically, pitting them against each other in this way, and equating love and material wealth, almost insures that the worst in them will emerge; thus are sown the seeds of everyone’s destruction.
Two of the daughters take the bait. The terrifying Goneril (played with wolfish intensity by the loping Deb Martin) and the more subtly treacherous Regan (less effectively embodied here by Jeanine Kane who needs to act with more than her head) attempt to outdo each other in lavish praise of the father whose goods they are after. Only Cordelia (Libby McKnight, somewhat colorless, but stalwart in the part) refuses to overstate her case and “cannot heave her heart into her mouth.” It’s a tough position to take and the actress treads carefully conveying an honest, just love, but with enough diffidence to somewhat substantiate Lear’s reaction—which is to go ballistic. He flies into a rage, banishes her, and divides his wealth among the conniving Goneril and Regan.
He quickly compounds this grave error, by banishing the faithful Earl of Kent, a splendidly irked Jeremiah Kissel, whose “only offense is honesty” in challenging the king’s treatment of Cordelia. Thus Lear, already blind begins to lose his footing, descending inevitably into anger, confusion, despair, madness, and finally a bloody brutal epiphany. No matter that he has the least foolish of Fools at his side in Brandon Whitehead who has a marvelous voice.
The rest of the play reiterates these themes. The unfortunate Earl of Gloucester’s (Fred Sullivan Jr.) “bastard” son Edmund (Mickey Solis) is able to trick his father into believing that his other son, the “legitimate” Edgar (Ed Hoopman) wants to murder him. Gloucester, emotionally blind to the truth is later literally blinded in the play. This “war of worth” has put kings and their kingdoms at risk, spawning a legacy of hatred by way of an impotent vision of what is of real value. The giant banners on this bold and evocative set by Tony-winner Beowulf Boritt begin to fall away as well, revealing the bare scaffolding of a faulty hierarchy at risk.
The climax of the tragedy is the raging storm into which Lear has unwittingly thrust himself, imperiling his kingdom, and upsetting the natural order. Lyman is uniquely qualified to manage the epic arc of Lear’s psychic and emotional journey. Lyman’s tall slender frame cuts both ways. The actor is towering, elegant, and easily suggests one of royal bearing; but his angularity also frames a vulnerability, his bones closer to the surface than we at first notice, his loft about to topple. The voice once arrogant and sure, now clings to a thinner upper register as he howls his pain and fear, lost in the hollow cadences of an empty king who “but slenderly knows himself.”
As Lear succumbs to the storm of chaos he has unleashed by his blindness Lear is pelted with rain and buffeted by the wind of twin giant turbines onstage, and we see the skeleton of the man through his wet clothes and skin, lashed to his sins—arms outstretched and crucified on the spikes of his own ego and misjudgment, and struck by the white lightning of despair and insight. Nature itself seems to have turned against him. It is an electrifying moment, perfectly conducted by director and star.
Yes, Lear has brought this on himself, but the question remains—is he “more sinned against than sinning?” That way lies the particular darkness of this tragedy. Do the gods care? Are we merely their playthings? Or do we have the moral heft to overcome our mortal flaws?
These questions cut to the heart of every family and kingdom, what we value and at what cost. Lear’s own words on the banners unfurled across the stage spell out an omen for our times: “Future Strife May Be Prevented Now.” Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s 20th production on the Common is a lightning rod for the questions raised by the Bard as we explore the answers that just might save our lives—if not Lear’s. Bravo CSC and its new king—Will Lyman.
DO NOT MISS KING LEAR at the Common’s Parkman Bandstand through August 9th!