When Fools Rule: Optimist Theatre’s “King Lear”

Michelle Owczarski

by Jeff Grygny

A ruler whose capricious decisions lead a nation into chaos— does that sound familiar?  Shakespeare could not have possibly imagined our nation’s current leadership problem, nor is Optimist Theatre’s current production of King Lear about it, exactly. But old Bill S. was quite familiar with how the pride and ignorance of powerful leaders brings about catastrophe— it’s not exactly not about it either.

King Lear is a monstrous play in the old meaning of the word: wondrously dark and unbearably pessimistic, sometimes very funny and sometimes surreal; its poetry quivers and pulsates, barely able to contain the vast riches of the Renaissance world. It’s about family and power, honesty and lies; deep humanism and existential dread; madness, blindness, and love. It shows us a time when the old feudal loyalties were buckling under the younger generation’s Machiavellian realpolitik. (Today, we have the inverse problem: democratic norms are straining under the assault of those loyal to a win-at-all costs mentality.)

But this show isn’t that King Lear: director Lisa Gaye Dixon unfolds a political view that—only fully stated in the play’s final moments—is breathtaking in its uncompromising vision. At the same time, she clarifies the relationships and motivations of the all-too-human characters to depict a murky landscape of alienation and confusion that is illuminated by flashes of brilliance— thanks greatly to one of the strongest casts to appear in Optimist Theater’s nine years of producing Shakespeare in the Park.

In the title role, James Pickering tones down the charisma he could easily command in favor of a brusque characterization, like a testy CEO accustomed to servility.  It’s fascinating to see how he solves each problem the text presents. Even in his deepest despair he doesn’t play for pathos, and neither his madness nor his new-found humility seem to unmake his basic imperious nature. This is not a Lear who is heartbroken, whose chief folly was to doubt that his daughter loved him: he’s an old man freaking out from his precipitous loss of power. It’s hard to sympathize with such a man.

As Lear’s Fool, Robert Spencer is a delight. It’s easily one of the trickiest roles in Shakespeare’s repertoire. With his elfin mien and the delivery of a professional comedian, Spencer manages to actually be funny—challenging, as few of the Fool’s lines make much sense to modern ears. Another standout (and like Spencer, making his first appearance with Optimist), is Bryce Lord as Lear’s loyal vassal, the banished Kent. Though his “disguise” is less than believable, he portrays dogged, likable integrity. Whether delivering a blistering stream of creative insults or resigning himself to an unjust punishment, he is consistently authentic, never devolving into the shoutiness that often bedevils less experienced Shakespearean actors. Similarly, as Gloucester,  ​Sam White delivers more high points: whether thoughtlessly insulting his illegitimate son or in his cruel torture and abjection, he plays every moment feelingly and credibly.

Jacque Troy as Goneril and David Sapiro as her oily lickspittle Osric clearly have an erotic thing going on, adding a little soap opera spice; while Kat Wodtke and Ryan Cappleman play the sadistic Duke and Duchess of Cornwall with the frightening allure of poisonous snakes. Even Lear’s band of a hundred knights—here delivered by a sturdy half-dozen players—have their moment to shine, in a scene that captures the rowdy fellowship of a frat party. It’s almost the only human warmth in the play, as director Dixon often emphasizes the character’s lack of connection by setting them apart in spacial isolation. Jonathan Wainwright plays the wicked Edmund, not as “wicked,” but with the cold calculation of a Wall Street schemer on his way to the top, while Tom Reed delivers the shape-shifting Edgar with fearless athleticism.

Malkia Stampley, who played a joyous Titania for the Optimists a few years ago, forgoes the standard soft-edged portrayal of Cordelia for a cool integrity. Taking charge with steely resolve, she shows herself to be a far better leader than her father. One of the central themes of this endlessly fertile text is the speaking of one’s truth, regardless of how the hearer might take it. Lisa Gaye Dixon has taken this to heart: she has reworked the end of the play to place Cordelia’s stylized death literally front and center, ending abruptly with Lear’s lines “See, oh see.” The signal couldn’t be clearer if it was sent by semaphore; something like: “the real tragedy is that foolish old men have all the power, when smart, strong young women could run things much better.” Many of Dixon’s other choices (such as her apparent disregard for the manly art of stage combat; the fights look like they were slapped together in ten minutes) make perfect sense in light of this interpretation.

There is an uncredited program note in a page-long, fine-print, bullet-pointed list of “Suggestions for getting the most out of your Shakesperience.” It reads: “Every Shakespeare production you ever see is a ‘cover.’” This intriguing idea is valid: in Victorian times, producers changed the ending so that Cordelia was rescued at the last minute and wedded to Edgar; productions in the 60s were treated as existential theater of the absurd. Just so, this production aligns with the current notion of intersectionality, which treats the disparities of power among races, classes, and genders. Purists might blink, but the folks of Optimist Theatre are doing their best to make the play relevant to our times. That takes a lot of courage.

One respectful suggestion: This company is obviously in love with Shakespeare’s language. It would better serve their mission of connecting with today’s audiences to cut the text more deeply and judiciously, so that the play runs for less than three hours, and the actors aren’t forced into the old  “say the lines as fast as possible with feeling and hope something comes across” trope. With a more focused text, each moment could be it’s own, and there could be much deeper appreciation of what Shakespeare has to say, and the wonderful ways he says it.

That said, with great acting, a firmly-drawn concept, and strong direction, this show will give playgoers plenty to talk about on the ride home.

Optimist Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park presents

King Lear
by William Shakespeare

Directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon

playing through July 21st