The tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else. King Lear, Act 3, scenes 4–5.
Avant Bard’s King Lear is a bracing, piercing production of a family and realm in heightening disarray. The galvanizing production plumbs the depths of an unnamed country in which loyalty reigns, deceit lurks, chaos ensues, and pain drives its sharp lance into hearts and minds. The time could be just before now, or maybe what could be just a few moments into the future.
This Lear has a life force that enraptured me. It was built from the start with Director Tom Prewitt’s sure-handed, distinctively eclectic outlook.
Let’s start with the refreshing, integrated casting of newcomers to the Shakespeare canon and a non-traditional, re-gendering of several characters that added to this King Lear’s allure. Then combine with the authoritative work of Avant Bard company members, and the commanding presence of Rick Foucheux as Lear, himself. Then, further enhance the production with a fired-up design team who enveloped my senses with storms, flash-bang sounds, and lighting effects, along with some well-placed chimes at midnight and noon too.
Such a straightforward plot is King Lear. Shakespeare has audiences witness the decline into dementia (or perhaps a late onset of PTSD for a warrior King) of an aging Monarch. He has divided his Kingdom. He has given parts as a bequest to two of his three daughters after testing each with a simple question: How much does each love him?
Smooth-talking flattery spews easily from the lips of two daughters, both older and married, Goneril and Regan. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, single and still living at home, speaks more plainly if not honestly, which angers Lear to his very core. He quickly disowns Cordelia and banishes her.
Chaos ensues within both the broken family and kingdom. The married daughters show their true natures, betraying their father with the assistance of an in-it-to-win-it malcontent named Edmund. The ever more unhinged Lear wanders his kingdom (“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”) howling at the moon with a small entourage of loyal followers. These include a long-time confidant named Gloucester (re-gendered to a female character from the original male in Shakespeare), a steadfast Fool (“Many a true word hath been spoken in jest”), and resourceful protectors such as Kent attempting rescues until the play’s chilling denouement with the unexpected valiant swordplay of Edgar (played by a female actor as a male).
But those are mere plot points and some dialogue.
What makes this King Lear so majestic an evening are finely calibrated, galvanizing performances starting with Rick Foucheux as Lear. Foucheux is commanding as a man, father, and King. He is lucid but quick-tempered to a fault. (Is this a sign of late onset PTSD from a King in too many battles?) When first we encounter him he seems a King and man to enjoy company with. But his temper is fearful. His need to be loved without quenching. As madness shows itself more and more, Foucheux babbles as if on the brink of a final break with reality. He throws himself about the stage; crawling and shouting, whimpering and shaking as he tries mightily to keep his wits. Foucheux is simply larger than life, and he fills the tight surroundings of Gunston’s Theatre II with a sheer bravura performance—a tour de force. Foucheux made me feel his Lear as I have rarely grasped before.
Cam Magee, in the role of Gloucester was a very affecting presence. She and her character add great depth to the relationship with Lear. Magee was impressive and expressive throughout as she withstood trials and tribulations testing her loyalties. Let me add that in one scene toward the end of Act II, when she withstands a special torture, I saw many an audience member turn away from the intensity of the stage horror. With Gloucester a female, there were also unexpected tenderness and wisdom.
As Edgar, Sara Barker was a penetrating and absorbing presence in a challenging role of a protector of Lear who has to withstand his old tests of mettle. Charlene V. Smith’s Regan is made of steel with a ‘don’t fuck with me’ bearing. Goneril, as played by Alyssa Sanders, has a verbally vicious, stinging manner toward all that come into her presence. Kathryn Zoerb’s Cordelia is no pushover as a young woman who speaks truth to power with a spine and a sword when it is necessary.
Christopher Henley’s unmuted, faithful persona as The Fool; Vince Eisenson’s appealing, steadfast, Kent; Dylan Morrison Myers’ wickedly vile Edmund; and, as husbands to Regan and Goneril, Frank Britton’s unsettling Cornwall and Christian R. Gibbs’ Albany, add to the deep pleasure of the production.
The technical team of Scenic Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, Lighting Designer John D. Alexander, and Sound Designer Justin Schmitz establish a striking, forceful atmosphere for the production; a ragged, seen-better-days geodesic dome in some back-channel, godforsaken place where storms rage, thunder bellows, and eerie foreboding chimes strike. The costume design by Elizabeth S. Ennis is a beauty.
There is nothing commonplace about Avant Bard’s King Lear. It is ambitious and illuminating. This production made my heart ache as the production unfolded. It is memorable for many reasons starting with Rick Foucheux’s mind-boggling performance as a man named Lear, on the verge of and then succumbing to a breakdown. Avant Bard’s King Lear is also a deep dive into the wreckage of a family and country undone by false loyalty, and fake genuflection and arrogance, as recently penned by Book World’s Ron Charles. Perhaps Charles should see Avant Bard’s production.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
King Lear plays through June 25, 2017, at Avant Bard performing at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two – 2700 South Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 418-4808, or purchase them online.