King Lear, Shakespeare’s grandest and saddest tragedy, is about more than the loss of autonomy that comes with aging. Loyalty and betrayal, reality and delusion, cruelty and compassion – Lear addresses all these. Still, focussing on the collapse of the aging king’s integrity of mind is a more than valid choice. The Secret Theatre’s new production, directed by Alberto Bonilla with Austin Pendleton in the title role, resonates deeply with a modern culture made acutely sensitive to the tragedy of dementia.
This Lear is an old man in a care facility, wearing hospital pajamas and being sung to by the staff on his birthday. Abetted by Viviane Galloway’s modern-dress costuming, this framing device introduces the idea that the action takes place in the old man’s mind. While leaving Shakespeare’s language intact, Bonilla shifts the action to a half-fantastical contemporary time where the scheming Edmund is a snickering good-ol’-boy, the loyal Kent affects a southern accent, the Fool wears a pink pussy hat, a mincingly officious Oswald never wants to put down his clipboard, and righteous Edgar disguised as Poor Tom slings a guitar and leads the cast in a brawling rendition of The Band’s “The Weight.”
Pendleton’s Lear speaks colloquially, conversationally. The rest of the cast follows suit to greater and lesser degrees. This allows us to often forget the iconic status of the story, of lines like “Nothing will come of nothing” and “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” and instead simply follow the action. That’s always welcome in a modern Shakespeare production.
Out of Lear’s subdued, bemused mien, the occasional outburst becomes the more striking, and leaves space for other characters to become deliciously outsize, including Zachary Clark’s Edmund, Arthur Lazalde’s Kent, and Elizabeth A. Davis’s cool, sharp-tongued, very pregnant Goneril. Together with Pendleton’s shuffling king, they draw more prancing humor out of Lear‘s scenarios than one usually sees.
None of that sacrifices the integrity of Shakespeare’s language and storytelling, the lighthearted sequences as well as the overriding tragedy. Samantha Bee’s anti-Trump insult-oramas have nothing on Kent’s takedown of Oswald (“nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch” etc.) as delivered with rambunctious glee by Lazalde.
Edmund and Edgar’s exchange about eclipses and effects astrological is as comical as Edgar’s leading the blinded Gloucester to the fake cliff-edge (otherwise known as Lear’s care-facility bed) is heart-wrenching. Indeed, in this telling the crumpling of Richard Mazda’s dignified Gloucester carries more tragic weight than Lear’s own diminution, as, with the king hobbled almost from the very beginning, even a spectator who didn’t know the story ahead of time wouldn’t give him much of a chance.
Effective backdrop lighting and stormy sound effects create tense atmospherics, with the plainness of the set adding to the sense that we are witnessing a humble old man imagining himself at the center of a royal tragedy as, on another level, he panics, mostly quietly, at the loss of his facilities. A re-conception neither radical nor half-hearted, the result is a respectful and forceful staging.
King Lear is at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens, through April 9.