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August 2, 2013

TT: Plain tale from the hills

In today's Wall Street Journal I review two back-to-back festival productions of King Lear at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Here's an excerpt.

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"King Lear" is to theater what Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is to chamber music, an all-encompassing, all-but-unperformable super-drama that is as challenging to the audience as it is to the performers. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes not: I've reviewed seven "Lears" prior to this week, one of them sublime, two preposterous and the rest variously problematic. All of them, even the bad ones, taught me things I didn't know about Shakespeare's harsh tale of a vain old king who goes mad when his greedy daughters betray him. The passionate playgoer can never see enough "Lears," so I saw two more in July, one on the East Coast, the other on the West. It'd be hard to imagine two less similar stagings, yet each is true in its own fashion to the unswervingly honest masterpiece of which George Bernard Shaw rightly said that "no man will ever write a better tragedy."

01-Lear-Jessica-Frey-Stephen-Paul-Johnso.jpgTerrence O'Brien's Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production, my first outdoor "Lear," takes place under a tent pitched on a wooded bluff overlooking the Hudson River, a sublimely apposite location for a drama whose centerpiece is a storm scene set on a lonely heath. Unlike the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's elaborately designed version, it's simple and matter-of-fact, a plain tale played in traditional costumes on a dirt-floored stage decorated only by the shadow of Storm King Mountain at sunset. Nothing could be more apt, and Mr. O'Brien knows it: He leaves it to Shakespeare to set the scene, and his actors respond with a performance that is all the more eloquent for its understatement.

Stephen Paul Johnson's Lear is a not-so-old greybeard who, it appears, has retired too early for his own good. Wesley Mann, his coarse, sturdy Fool, gives us the clue: "If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten for being old before thy time." Not only is he still physically vital, but he's inclined to physical violence, which makes his vertiginous descent into lunacy all the more shocking....

OSF%20LEAR.jpegBill Rauch's "Lear," as befits a director known for his embrace of the present moment, is a modern-dress version set in "a kingdom, now" and staged in the round in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 360-seat arena-style theater, the smallest of the company's three performance spaces. On occasion I bristled at his up-to-the-nanosecond imagery, which sometimes struck me as ingenious to the point of glibness. Does it really illuminate Shakespeare's text to show us Lear relaxing after hours in a La-Z-Boy, or Cordelia (Sofia Jean Gomez) decked out as a tattooed goth chick? But Mr. Rauch is an artist of quality, so I put my reservations on ice and did my best to go where he went, and by evening's end I was fascinated, if not fully persuaded, by the rigorous, even ruthless consistency with which he has transposed Shakespeare's play into a modern key....

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's King Lear:

Posted August 2, 2013 12:00 AM

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