The Atlanta Shakespeare Company at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse is producing is producing the Bard’s most forbidding tragedy, “King Lear,” directed by Jeff Watkins, running through Nov. 24.
Although it is often considered Shakespeare’s greatest play, it’s not uncommon for Shakespearean scholars to warn acting companies of the pitfalls of attempting production.
I now call “Lear” the K2 of plays: K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, but is more terrifying than Everest: Climbers have said that K2 is “a savage mountain that tries to kill you,” because of the extreme difficulty of ascent. About one person dies for every four who reach the summit. (I learned these facts when researching Catalyst Arts Atlanta’s award-winning “K2” earlier this year.)
Indifferently produced, “Lear” is tedious, but when superbly acted it is almost too intolerably moving. What to do? Pre-eminent scholar Harold Bloom moans that “our directors and actors are defeated by this play” far too often. He further states that “King Lear,” together with “Hamlet,” “ultimately baffles commentary…these show an apparent infinitude that perhaps transcends the limits of literature.”
I would say that “Lear” is leaping into the spiritual stratosphere, and what one finds isn’t so pretty. I think “Hamlet” is the greater theatrical work because it’s so playable—and oh, that language. But we shan’t debate that now.
Now for some good news: Atlanta actor par excellence Chris Kayser is playing Lear. I understand he has wanted to for some time, and now is his moment. Mr. Kayser has been so good for so long that you may think he has been overpraised; get over it. He is that good. Without a great Lear you have no play; with Mr. Kayser we have one; we’ll discuss his fine performance more in a bit.
But this is “K2,” remember; we also need a superb supporting cast, and hallelujah, we’ve got them.
First, the plot (a little). King Lear, the 80-year-old (or thereabout) king of Britain decides he is going to divide his kingdom into three parts, based on which of his three daughter can most eloquently declare their love for him. Regan (Gina Rickicki) and Goneril (Anja Lee) take a deep breath and outdo each other in extravagant praise: (Goneril: “Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter…”). Next, Regan’s praise is equally over the top. Finally it is Cordelia’s (Alexandra Pica) turn (she is the youngest and Lear’s favorite).
“Nothing.” She figures she doesn’t need to wax saccharine; she feels confident in their mutual love. She figures wrong. An existential nihilism keeps rearing its head in this play; this depresses many; another reason “Lear” is K2.
“Nothing will come of nothing,” says Lear. There is a devastating irony in the word “nothing.” Lear is wrong; from this one word begins the whole devastating tragedy. He is infuriated and disinherits her on the spot.
2400 years ago, the prophet Tiresias warned Oedipus (in Sophocles’ play “Oedipus the King”) of the danger of excessive pride and unreasoning anger. Lear does not heed this ancient wisdom and brings folly upon himself and others. “When we are born, we cry that we come to this great stage of fools,” says Lear. He is including himself in that number.
When Kent (Matt Nitchie), one of Lear’s most loyal courtiers, defends Cordelia, he is banished. But Kent disguises himself to keep serving the king; he is loyal.
However unlovable Lear is in the first two acts, he still has a retinue of friends who love him: Cordelia, the Fool (Natalie Karp), Albany (Drew Reeves), Kent, Gloucester (Maurice Ralston), and Edgar (Kenneth Wigley).
We have a secondary plot involving the Earl of Gloucester and his bastard son Edmund (Chris Hecke) and his legitimate, older brother, Edgar. Edmund is a real badass (in the negative sense), as devious as Iago (“Othello”). When he discovers both Regan and Goneril are in love with him, he converses with the audience as to whom he should choose. Cornwall (Tamil Periasamy), Regan’s husband, is as charming as she is. Edmund is sociopathic but seductive; through Shakespeare’s sleight of hand, he’ll seduce you if you’re not careful (Mr. Hecke is well cast; with his disarming smile he makes Edmund even more dangerous). “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”
But his “legitimate” brother, Edgar is the play’s centerpiece, barring Lear himself, and possibly Gloucester. Edgar, extremely well played by Mr. Wigley, is something of an enigma. He may blame himself for not perceiving Edmund’s treachery earlier.
When I was a freshman in college, I had an “intro to theatre” professor who spoke in hushed tones about when Lear loses his mind and rages in a storm on the heath. Dr. Mays (that was his name) said Lear should be 80-years-old and naked, and he spoke as though this scene was the apotheosis of all drama. He may have been right; you can decide. But no, Mr. Kayser is not naked—physically. But in every other sense he is; it appears he’s lost everything.
Let me say that Maurice Ralston as Gloucester gives a superb, memorable performance. And Ms. Karp as the Fool carefully underplays a difficult role and makes the Fool, who “explains” Lear a bit to us, almost mystical. J. Tony Brown, Ryan Vo and several others play multiple roles, very well indeed.
That brings us back to Chris Kayser. His Lear is a pinnacle moment, even in his storied career. To take just one aspect of his art—his voice—that clarity of diction, the distinctive tone, unmistakable yet unaffected; you know you are in the presence of an artist—a word that is used far too easily these days. He is “every inch a king.”
The lovely cast, the expert direction, this titanic play—it doesn’t come around that often. Go.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.