I am at the Utah Shakespeare Festival this week, both for an academic conference and to take in the last season at the Adams Shakespearean Theatre. Construction of a new outdoor playhouse is ongoing across the street to which the dimmers of the Adams will be transferred at the end of the summer. As part of the festival’s agenda to “complete the canon” by staging all of Shakespeare’s works before mounting any restagings, this season features The Taming of the Shrew, King Lear, and 2 Henry IV.
Last night I took in the second of these, King Lear, which happens to be the flagship production of the season featuring television actor Tony Amendola. What is striking about this production are its attempt to naturalize Lear’s madness while at the same time interiorizing his daughters’ rejection as unnatural. The opening moments off the play were perhaps the most thoughtful: the ornate bannister of the balcony was replaced with something far more rough-hewn, and barren trees extend from the exposed discovery space up into the balcony. A rock formation is the only addition to this otherwise “bare” stage. The three sisters gradually enter, one by one, the stage and pace its edges silently while the audience shuffles and files into their seats, wringing their hands with looks of furrowed concentration. We are asked to connect the blasted heath of the set with the blasted emotions of Lear’s daughters from the outset.
The barrenness of the stage design is a smart contrast to the sumptuous and italiante design of the night before with The Taming of the Shrew: Lear’s curse that Goneril be barren is underscored, and I must admit somewhere problematicall since her husband was the only actor of color on stage. It was unclear if the moment of miscenganous anxiety was intentional, coincidence, or the whitewashed cultural makeup or rural Utah coming unexpectantly to bear. Playing Goneril is the same same actress playing Kate the night beofer: it would seem Melinda Pfundstein is specializing in older sisters with a bad wrap this season. While the personas were clearly demarcated between productions, I wonder what kind, if any, bleed over their might have been for her in the rehearsal process? (The repertory company at USF tkae about seven weeks to build each show, usually in overlapping time frames.) She and Regan, played by Saren Nofs-Snyder, were well distinguished from one another, the later the more simpering and reactive in opposition to the former’s domineering approach to family politics.
But one cannot write about Lear without addressing the technologies of madness: the storm and the blinding. Both moments of chaos and unreason, her the director, Sharon Ott, decided to go with a mechanized storm rather than one of the mind. Thunder effects (no lightening flashes however) and fog machines enveloped Amendola as he wrestled withhis environs. The delivery of the famous speech, “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage!” was aimed outward at the audience and the calm western night sky rather than inward as a show of Lear wrestling with his own inner demons. I make much of this because it seemed at odds with the rest of his performance where outbursts were followed by gestures, galnces, and other body language that implied Lear’s shock at his own behavior. James Newcomb’s Gloucester had perhaps a more satisfying arc in this case because you can see his cocky self-assurance, bragging at his own sexual prowess with his bastard son as evidence, dissolve at the unexpeted civil war within his own house, and then his blinding. Gloucester embraces (what he thinks are) the clifts of Dover, giving over to is natural environs as a means to explore his limitations as a father in which Lear could as well: it simply depends on the appraoch to his storm. A storm of the mind, while far more difficult to execute, may have aligned the narratives of Gloucester and lear far more coherently.
There is no doubt that this was a visually stirring production, whose design was visually sympathetic to the outdoor Adams Shakespearean Theatre as well as the themes in the play itself. Rather than putting the interior anxieitites, the “madenesses,” of Gloucester, Lear, and their children on a continuum of inner dysfunction, the production cose to instead exteriorze the suffering of the fathers, making them something natural and sympathetic, while interiorizing and obfuscating the suffering of the children. By obfuscating those motives, children can only be seen as villains in this play—that, or impossible sacrificial lambs free from the trauma of living with power your whole life. (In this way Cordelia always seems an alien to me.) Certainly Lear is a crucial play today as we struggle with finding was of ethically supporting aging parents with dementia, mental and physical illnesses, while not stripping them of their dignitity and independence. Productions that interlink the generations in Lear rather than hermetically seal them off from on another (doing a kind of lip service to the commonplace that youth cannot comprehend what it means to age) in the way that Ott does so her with Gloucester and his sons are sorely needed–a compelling reason indeed to see this production in the festival’s last few weeks.