|Berenson and McEleny just before the madness.|
I've held off on my review of Trinity Rep's King Lear till the last minute because - well, actually I usually do hold off on bad reviews, if I can (I do front-load raves, and I suppose that's inconsistent - but with pans I'm often only writing for the intellectual record, such as it is!). And at any rate this production wasn't quite bad, it was just . . . disappointing, particularly given who was in it and the scale of the effort involved.
This Lear was actually a joint production between Trinity and the Dallas Theater Center - and was directed by Kevin Moriarty (who used to direct down in Providence - got all that?). Moriarty had something of a reputation in these parts back then, but much of what went wrong with this misfire can be traced to his odd ideas, so let's just say I don't think much of him now. This wasn't quite the car crash that last season's Merchant of Venice was, but most of Moriarty's interpretative touches either flattened the play, or left you scratching your head.
And I was equally disappointed, I'm afraid, by Brian McEleny's turn in the title role, particularly as I know this Trinity vet knows his Shakespeare (he gave us a memorable Twelfth Night about two years ago). Here, however, McEleny was hampered by the choice to emphasize Lear's decrepitude; meanwhile the ensemble (drawn both from Providence and Dallas) hadn't really become an ensemble yet (and frankly a few of the actors came off as Shakespearean neophytes). So the production was sometimes a thing of shreds and patches - although it was almost redeemed by one dynamite stage image (when Michael McGarty's elegant set collapsed along with Lear's mind), and a storm scene that came closer than most to the edge of madness.
Now that's no small achievement right there. But it must be balanced against many other loopy interpretive decisions. At the talkback I attended, one audience member opined that she had "never realized this was a play about Alzheimer's!" Now I understood her feeling - it was an appropriate response to what we'd just seen; but of course Lear is NOT a play about Alzheimer's, and to pretend that it is distorts Shakespeare's intents and undermines his achievement. This is simply another example of how the attempt to give the Bard a contemporary handle often ends up reducing him to puny postmodern dimensions. (And just btw, before you say it, my father died of that terrible disease, so I know from Alzheimer's.)
Perhaps this rather clinical mood is what made Moriarty turn the Fool (Stephen Berenson) into - well, just a court jester (admittedly, Berenson made a funny one), who limned little or nothing of Lear's love of Cordelia, or his guilt over his mistreatment of her. Needless to say, much of the poignance of the building action of the play's first half - as Lear grapples with both his other daughters' treachery and his own awareness that he has brought their treachery on - was therefore lost, and the sisters' descent into evil was likewise truncated and opaque. (Angela Brazil's Regan was particularly incoherent.) And then strangely, Moriarty kept the Fool around after his disappearance from the play (who knows why; Berenson seemed to signal sometimes that he wasn't sure why he was onstage, either). And then there was Phyllis Kay's blank Earl of Gloucester - aside from recalling Hillary at certain moments, she seemed unable to make anything individual of her thematically complicated non-traditional casting (as matricide is, I think, different from patricide in its import and impact). Of the Trinity regulars, Joe Wilson, Jr. did hold his own as Albany, but only Fred Sullivan, Jr., made a really strong impression as a viciously fey Oswald.
The crowd from Dallas came through with somewhat stronger performances (perhaps because they were more familiar with Moriarty's methods?). The stand-out was Hassan El-Amin's passionate Kent, but there were the beginnings of memorable interpretations from Lee Trull (Edmund) and Abbey Siegworth (Cordelia) - and Steven Michael Walters' Edgar got better as the play progressed (although he too seemed unable to grapple with the special impact of seeing his mother with her eyes torn out). Perhaps as the show makes its way from Providence to Texas, these interpretations will achieve greater depth and clarity.
And I admit that even McEleny had his moments - he certainly gave the performance his all, even stripping down to his bare bodkin for the storm scene. This was by far the production's finest hour - with the set in ruins, rain came pouring in through the roof, and as the shivering, naked McEleny picked his way delicately through the wreckage, chattering pathetically, a shattering image of moral and political chaos suddenly came into terrible focus. I'll carry that with me as my memory of this Lear; I only wish I had more like it.