Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Age-Old Story

Stop me if you've heard this:

An elderly parent, quite possibly losing his faculties, engages in domestic discord with his offspring. The adult children quibble with the parent and each other as property is divvied up and brain marbles plop out and roll across the shiny floors of a manse.

It's almost impossible these days to avoid news articles on Alzheimer's, dementia, living wills and how to have "that talk" with an aging parent. As it turns out, the Elizabethans dealt with similar issues and our old pal, William Shakespeare, wrote it down in King Lear.

Of course, the Bard being the Bard, he escalates the plot to dizzying heights. Sisters fight over a lover, spike drinks with poison, send old friends into the stocks and yank out eyeballs. As with all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the audience is left to count up the bodies.

It's great fun to watch other families handle their business so errantly.

I had the pleasure of attending opening night of the Globe Theatre's production of King Lear at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. In keeping with the original style of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre — which, by the way, burned down because real cannon fire was used in the war scenes — this production is set on a rustic stage without lighting changes. The actors and the audience are lit as if they are all gathered on a sunny day in London circa 1607.

This production of King Lear was directed by Bill Buckurst, with only eight actors playing all the parts. I applaud the sheer energy and imaginative approach of this production. Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, is all one hopes the character to be in the hands of Bethan Cuillinane. Astonishingly, this same actor takes on the task of playing the Fool. With vocal and physical changes she clambers all over the King, teasing and pulling off some very tricky Shakespearean jokes.

Her duplicitous sisters, Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) gambol about the stage singing, playing musical instruments, and additionally taking on many male roles.

Bill Nash, as the loyal Kent, is committed to giving his all, as is Daniel Pirrie, having a whale of a time as the evil Edmund. These actors also play multiple roles, with the slipping on of a hat, cloak and dialect adjustment. They are matched equally in skill and with a brazen attack on the text by Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and John Stahl as the tragic and blinded Gloucester.

Topping off this adept and gifted cast is Joseph Marcell as the lord himself, King Lear. Marcell embraces the madness of a man losing his mind, his family and his royal status. His constant swerving and surprising choices had me agape and transfixed. Where would he go next? What would he do now?

No acting decision Marcell makes is expected, right down to his skewed and oh-so-human entrance carrying (spoiler alert!) the dead Cordelia. She is splayed in his arms as if he'd seized her off the floor in a moment of emotional reckoning.

A signature scene of King Lear is the storm sequence, and we're used to seeing this with all the high-tech bells and whistles modern theatre can provide. Not here. Not for the Globe Theatre, no siree. Every actor participates in creating the sounds of rain, thunder and swishing gales — yet I'm pretty certain I saw soaking-wet, windblown characters. Magnificent.

This acting ensemble provides universally strong performances, which is no mean feat because they are asked to do so much. Opening and closing the show, the actors joined together in a rousing, foot-stomping song that had me feeling transported through time as a likely groundling cheering for more blood, guts and family wrath.

The production runs until November 16th. The Broad Stage offers a 20% discount for weekday tickets: code LEAR.

photos by Ellie Kurttz

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