Only rarely in a lifetime of attending theater is there a production that so engages the minds, hearts, and senses of an audience as to leave one nearly breathless with awe. Anchored by Patrick Page’s powerfully moving performance in the title role, director Simon Godwin’s emotionally and physically compelling production of King Lear at Shakespeare Theatre Company does just that.
This Lear is set in an authoritarian state dominated, like many in our recent past and present, by a family dynasty. Emily Rebholz’s costume design features modern military uniforms. The sound design (Christopher Shutt) and projection design (Aaron Rhyne) give us sounds and images of jet aircraft, missiles, and attack helicopters. Scenic designer Daniel Soule provides a movable panel-based set, initially “Lear’s Hangar,” a militarized setting of a kind we have seen from many contemporary autocrats. From his desk there, the king delivers decrees dividing up his domain as his daughters step up to the microphone to seek his favor. Michael Bruce’s dramatic, large-scale between-scenes music gives the production an epic soundscape.
Even as Lear’s mind and psyche deteriorate, Page commands the stage, vocally and physically, as conspiracies and storms swirl around him. Whether in piano or forte passages, Page’s marvelous — operatic is not too strong a word — bass speaking voice is riveting. In Page’s performance, Lear’s rage, confusion, loss of his very self, and terrible final grief communicate directly to the audience on the level of the deepest human feelings.
The kingdom is on the verge of becoming a failed state, as the failing state of its monarch opens the door to ambitious power seekers all too willing to create disorder to achieve their ends. In so doing they fracture families as they fracture society. Shakespeare’s trio of villains — Lear’s daughters Goneril (Rosa Gilmore) and Regan (Stephanie Jean Lane) and Edmund (Julian Elijah Martinez), son of the Duke of Gloucester (Craig Wallace) — are defined by their will to power. They will betray fathers and siblings, betray each other, and maim or murder anyone who stands in their way.
In Martinez’s characterization, Edmund, who deeply resents being the “bastard” son of Gloucester, is often gleeful in his evil. Cruelty and deceit are useful, to be sure, but they are also rather fun.
Anyone who thinks that frightening images are the special province of horror movie special effects should pay attention to the blinding of Gloucester, and the perverse joy in evil it displays. Lear’s impact on an audience needs to be visceral, and in this moment and others Godwin and the actors deliver.
Seeking, as well as enjoying, power is a well-known aphrodisiac. Costumed in patent leather leggings, Goneril and Regan overtly use their sexuality as a tool, particularly in trying to enlist Edmund to their increasingly conflicting causes, as well as a way of celebrating their triumphs. Their erotic and political appetites easily coalesce.
Goneril is also ready to use her dominant persona to humiliate her seemingly weak husband, Albany (Jake Loewenthal), who is less useful to her plans than she believes Edmund can be. In a nice bit of physical casting, Gilmore, especially in heels, is taller than Loewenthal. Loewenthal clearly traces Albany’s character arc as he later becomes a leader in the opposition to Goneril, Regan, and Edmund.
It is often difficult to make virtuous characters as interesting as villains, but both Shakespeare and this production succeed with Cordelia (Lily Santiago), who despite her early rejection by her father grows into a military leader who ultimately shelters him. Likewise, Edgar (Matthew J. Harris), initially seen and costumed as hapless nerd, then forced into a homeless exile as “poor Tom” by his brother Edmund’s machinations, survives his time in the wilderness to become a leader. Together with Kent (Shirene Babb), who remains steadfast to Lear throughout, Edgar and Albany form the nucleus of a revived society.
As the Fool, Michael Milligan very sweetly, with humor, tells Lear truths the king doesn’t want to hear or can no longer understand. Together with Lear and “Tom,” he suffers through a terrible storm — the lighting (Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew) and sound design provide a spectacular thundersnow event — sheltering in the wreck of a small aircraft fuselage, another reminder of the wreckage of society resulting from Lear’s incapacity and other characters’ lust for power.
There is much violence in the play, and fight choreographer Robb Hunter deserves credit for the realism of desperate knife fights that determine characters’ fates. Similarly, intimacy consultant Sierra Young gets just the right tone in the mutual seductions of Edmund with Goneril and Regan.
In counterpoint to the play’s violence and darkness, there are moments of compassion, reconciliation, and tenderness, all tone-perfect. It’s easy to forget that the play also includes a great deal of humor, some of the laugh-out-loud variety. Godwin’s direction and the timing of the actors are as spot-on in the funny moments as in the more numerous weighty ones.
At one level, King Lear is about the dissolution and reconstitution of a society. The importance of King Lear’s political intrigue, betrayals, and murders notwithstanding, the deeper meaning of the play is about the dissolution we all face, as mortals anticipating the end. Not for nothing is “Nothing” an important word in the play. When, near the play’s conclusion, Lear grieves over Cordelia’s body, Page’s “Never…never” resonated with every fiber of my being.
There’s probably a thesaurus of superlatives somewhere, but this production, in every respect, would exhaust its resources. Anyone who misses this King Lear misses one of the peak theatrical experiences of a lifetime.
Running Time: Two hours 35 minutes, including one intermission.
EXTENDED: King Lear plays through April 16, 2023, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Klein Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($35–$190) may be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 202-547-1122. Special discounts are available for members of the military, students, seniors, and patrons age 35 and under. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/ for more information.
The Asides+ program for King Lear, including Shakespeare Theatre Company’s typically excellent dramaturgical material, is available here.
COVID Safety: All performances of King Lear are MASK RECOMMENDED. Detailed Safety and Health information is here.