nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 4, 2006
Whoever decided that William Shakespeare's King Lear was too difficult a play to perform forgot to tell the Classical Theatre of Harlem. Their current production of Lear has a vitality that rips Shakespeare out of the classroom and hurls him up on stage where he belongs. Led by a bravura performance from Andre DeShields in the title role, this Lear proves that one does not need hallowed reverence for the Bard in order to do him well.
Focusing on an aging monarch who foolishly divides his kingdom amongst his daughters, who later betray him, Lear is classic Shakespeare (for a complete plot synopsis, click here). Displaying the author's mastery of plot construction and language, and finding him in a dark and ruminative mood, Lear is a deep and profound play that has earned its place as a cornerstone of Western dramatic literature. Where else can one find as accurate and eloquent an observation on the ingratitude of children as when Lear remarks
How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is
To have a thankless child!
Or the one made by the Earl of Gloucester's son, Edgar, about mounting degrees of bad fortune:
And worse I may be yet. The worst is not
So long as we can say "This is the worst."
Or my personal favorite, a brief exchange between Lear and the Fool, his court jester, about wisdom:
FOOL: If thy wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time.
LEAR: How's that?
FOOL: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
And, that's the point of Lear: just because he's the King doesn't mean he's smart, it just means he's the King. Ruling by hubris alone, Lear's blindness to the true motives of his daughters Goneril and Regan's dooms him in the end. His inability to see that his "untender" daughter, Cordelia, is the one who loves him most could be easily reversed if not for his damaged vanity.
Director Alfred Preisser really understands what's going on here, and knows how to communicate it. In the first scene, drum rolls accompany Regan and Goneril's proclamations of love to Lear, who awards them both property like they've just won prizes on a game show. The kingdom is represented by set designer Troy Hourie as a series of connectable rolling platforms that shift and move around the stage accordingly after Lear divvies everything up. In the play's most exciting scene, Preisser surrounds the King with those platforms as Regan and Goneril, each standing atop their respective territories, try to force him to dismiss his followers. It's a grand symbolic expression of how the daughters' machinations have forced Lear out of the empire he built. At the top of Act II, after Lear has gone into exile, the platforms are standing upright, signifying how the entire world of the play has been turned on its ear.
Lear is also blessed with a strong and more-than-able cast. From the moment he first steps on stage, DeShields's rendering of the title character drips with royal entitlement. He immediately makes it clear what Lear is all about, and what his downfall will be: his own pride. He's like a spoiled, petulant child: he doesn't need to be nice because he's the King. Anything he wants he can have. But, once his skewed world view and value system are both challenged and demolished, madness comes easily (and believably) to Lear. DeShields navigates the hairpin turns of Lear's inner journey with a commanding performance. (He obviously didn't get the memo about Lear being unplayable either.)
Other cast standouts include Ken Schatz, in a remarkable turn as the Fool, the only character Lear will listen to. More than just a jester, Schatz's performance is the first Fool I've seen that makes clear what his purpose in the play is: to serve as a voice of reason who can say to Lear what others don't dare to. The magnificent Ty Jones is roguishly charming as the scheming bastard Edmund. Ted Lange is moving and sympathetic as Edmund's father, the Earl of Gloucester. Zainab Jah and Robyne Landiss Walker are both appropriately tough-as-nails as Regan and Goneril, while Christina Sajous's anguished but devoted Cordelia breaks the heart.
It's a real testament to both Preisser and the cast that this Lear is the first Shakespeare production I've seen in a long time where the language sounded completely natural coming out of everyone's mouths, and my mind did not wander once during the show's 2-plus hours. And, despite having seen Lear before, I got so caught up in the play's events that the climax was actually a surprise to me. That's the power of this production: it takes the familiar and makes it fresh and new again. CTH has clearly established themselves as some of the premier Shakespeareans in New York. Head uptown and see why.