Yando and strong ensemble make this a must see
|Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents|
Review by John Olson
King Lear is regularly ranked among the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays and one of the reasons must surely be the abundance of great roles it includes. There’s the title role – a crotchety old man who transforms from arrogant tyrant to senility or madness and finally to despair after choosing the wrong daughters to bequeath his entire kingdom and the wrong daughter to disinherit. There are great villains – the two evil daughters and the wicked bastard Edmund who plots against his brother and father in his schemes to gain power. Less malevolent is Gloucester, the fatally flawed father whose insecurity causes him to fall for Edmund’s duplicities, and the comic role of the King’s Fool. Among the few good guys are the steadfast Edgar and Kent – loyal to father and King respectively – who assume false identities for their own survival. Director Barbara Gaines’ outstanding and mostly local cast makes the most of all these roles, with Gaines’ direction steering them toward characterizations that are contemporary and satiric even as they’re true to the original text.
Starting at the top is Larry Yando as Lear. Those who’ve seen him as Scrooge in the Goodman’s A Christmas Caro,l or Scar in the national tours of The Lion King ,know he can play comedy. He gets the chance here in several places, beginning with his bored, delusional monarch at the play’s beginning. From within Yando’s old fool erupts a vindictive old man. After daughters Goneril and Regan inherit his kingdom by offering him the flattery he craves, they turn him out in the stormy wild, where Yando’s Lear becomes unhinged. Later, when his third daughter arrives to rescue him, his senses return in time for him to feel remorse and anguish for his foolishness. Yando is always watchable throughout, entertaining and fully able to command the stage as this tragic king.
He doesn’t have to carry the show, though, as each of the supporting players is equally satisfying. Dressed in expensive-looking gowns by scenic and costume designer Mark Bailey, Bianca LaVerne Jones and Jessiee Datino play the duplicitous daughters Goneril and Regan like extremely dangerous real housewives. Gaines’ skill in finding present-day visuals to help communicate the ideas told through Shakespeare’s Elizabethan verse is especially evident here. Jones and Datino use sharp little physical movements that look like contemporary body language while dressed in the ostentatious apparel of the very wealthy. Their approach to the characters gives this Lear an especially satiric bite. Not funny, but more dangerous, is Jesse Luken’s Edmund. With his blond hair and gymnast’s build, he seems clean-cut enough to fool everyone into thinking his intentions are noble, while his asides to the audience inform us they’re anything but. Luken, who has numerous TV and film credits (including a regular role on the F/X series “Justified” and a part in the feature film “42”) and is making his Chicago Shakespeare debut, has the looks to believably seduce both Goneril and Regan and his Edmund has the cunning to pull it off.
Chicago’s Michael Aaron Lindner, who starred in Chicago Shakes’ Road Show earlier this year, has a breakout performance as Gloucester – the timid member of the court who tries to go along and get along, but who tragically falls into the trap set by his son. Lindner gains our sympathy as we see his character with all the best intentions make all the wrong choices. When Gloucester has his eyes plucked out by Regan’s ambitious husband Cornwall (a fine Lance Baker), the pain is palpable – not to mention bloody. Less newsworthy than Lindner’s performance but no less satisfying are Chicago Shakes’ stalwarts Kevin Gudahl as Kent – the former confidant to Lear who assumes an identity as a rough-hewn bodyguard to remain the King’s protector – and Ross Lehman as the King’s wise fool. Another familiar Chicago face – Steve Haggard, gives a strong performance as the son Edgar who for his own safety hides out in the forest as the madman “Tom,” clad in no more than a loincloth during the cold and stormy night. Even with little stage time, Nehassaiu deGannes impresses as the lovely and true Cordelia.
Bailey’s scenic design is simple and suggestive – mostly a huge upstage wall that is lowered to become a platform – but Michael Gend’s lighting and Lindsay Jones’ sound design combine to make a truly frightening storm. The visual and audio design are no more than needed – this Lear stands on its own based on the strength of its acting and direction. One wants to call it a production that trusts its material (and who wouldn’t) and its performers. But not quite. Ms. Gaines adds either too many – or maybe not enough – directorial flourishes that detract from this very solid staging. She opens with a funny bit in which a bored Lear is browsing through audio recordings of Frank Sinatra songs via remote control, pleased by none of them (and breaking a remote for each he doesn’t like) until settling happily on “I’ve Got the World on a String.” It’s a funny bit, and a chance for Yando to display his comic skills. Gaines much later inserts another Sinatra song, “Where Do You Go,” to underscore Lear’s increasing isolation and loneliness, but at this point it seems incongruous. The idea that Sinatra’s songs have a special role in Lear’s emotions is insufficiently developed. Another quibble is a directorial touch later in the play, after Regan’s husband has been killed. Regan has a huge painting of a young man emerging nude (seen from behind) out of a pool installed in her home, apparently as an assertion of her newfound sexual freedom and interest in the handsome Edmund. Apart from the fact that the painting looks more like gay erotica than something one would find in a single woman’s home, this just seems incongruous. While Gaines has mounted a very solid modern dress interpretation of the play, in which costumes, movement and vocal interpretation illuminate the text for a contemporary audience, the sparse use of very specific contemporary references – the two or three snippets of Sinatra, the nude painting – seem like either too much or too little. I’d vote for too much.
Gaines has her cast speaking rapidly and at a high pitch – again, not unlike the sorts of scenes we might see on reality shows of the “Real Housewives” ilk. That’s not inappropriate for the stakes of the piece, but it fights against the clarity of the speech and comprehension of the heavily plotted text. The program provides a synopsis, which is helpful, but I’d recommend newcomers to the play find a more detailed one to read in advance. Even so, the powerful, entertaining performances of this cast roll over the few missteps mentioned here. The production is a great chance to catch up on one of Shakespeare’s greatest.
King Lear continues through November 9th at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map). Tickets are $48-$78, and are available by phone (312-595-5600) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ChicagoShakes.com. (Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Larry Yando (King Lear). David Lively (Old Man), Kevin Gudahl (Duke of Kent), Michael Aaron Lindner (Earl of Gloucester), Jesse Luken (Edmund), Bianca Laverne Jones (Goneril), Nehassaiu deGannes (Cordelia), Jessiee Datino (Regan), Nathan M. Hosner (Duke of Albany), John Byrnes (Duke of Burgundy, soldier, ensemble), Christopher Chmelik (King of France, soldier, ensemble), Steve Haggard (Edgar), Fred Geyer (Oswald), Ross Lehman (Fool), Lance Baker (Duke of Cornwall); Evan Michalic, Alex Moerer, Ricardo Pizzaro, Wesley Scott (soldiers, ensemble); Eve Bowman, Maddie Burke, Angela Caravaglia, Ethan Eichenbaum, Haleigh Hutchinson, Sean Michael Mohler, Meghan O’ Neill, Becca Sheehan, Alison Smith, Elena Tubridy, Abram Vences, Mark Yacullo, Ilse Yafte Zacharias (ensemble)
behind the scenes
Barbara Gaines (director), Mark Bailey (scenic and costume designer), Michael Gend (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (original music and sound design), Melissa Veal (wig and make-up design), Matt Hawkins (fight choreography), Kevin Gudahl (verse coach), Bob Mason (casting), Dennis J. Conners (production stage manager), Johanna Hail (asst. stage manager), Rick Boynton (creative producer), Criss Henderson (executive director), Liz Lauren (photos)