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King of Pain

Robert Falls' violent production of Shakespeare's King Lear is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. logo
Stacy Keach in King Lear
(© Liz Lauren)
Robert Falls' controversial production of King Lear, which premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2006 and now moves to Washington D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company on June 16 with Stacy Keach once again tackling the title role, is not exactly your grandfather's Shakespeare.

It's not just the fact that the classic tragedy has been transported to the war-ravaged Balkan states of the 1990s which shocked Chicago audiences. For example, there's the moment when the loyal steward Oswald is thrown across the hood of the Earl of Kent's Mercedes-Benz and the household members arrive just in time to prevent the furious Kent from sodomizing the fallen valet with a tire iron.

Or take the moment that the actors call the "eye-fry" scene, in which the coked-up Duke of Cornwall duct-tapes the Earl of Gloucester to a chair in a fashionably high-tech kitchen and proceeds to rip out his captive's eyes and fling them into a heated skillet, where they sizzle with a sickening hiss. Scenes like this one require a strong stomach, even for playgoers accustomed to the gruesome imagery of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

"I'm drawn to big, passionate, messy works with messy emotions, messy people, messy lives," says Falls, a Tony Award winner for Death of a Salesman and the director of the Broadway revivals of Long Day's Journey Into Night and Desire Under the Elms. "But I hope audiences will see this Lear in a way that's larger than a play about a man and his children, because I think it's a political story as well as a domestic one."

Chris Genebach, Edward Gero, and Kate Arrington in King Lear
(© Liz Lauren)
Helping to supply much of the onstage messiness is renowned fight choreographer Rick Sordelet, who says he has managed to "enhance" what the company (which also includes such first-rate actors as Laura Odeh, Kim Martin-Cotton, Kate Arrington, Andrew Long, and Edward Gero) first did in Chicago. "Bob has had some time to sit with the production, as have the actors, so I have no doubts that this one will be even better," says Sordelet.

Sordelet says he took many of his cues not just from Falls' vision for the play, but the set design by Walt Spangler. "Having Gloucester blinded in the kitchen -- which is the core of a family home and where his meals were prepared -- was a stroke of genius on Falls' part. So I just got to use what was naturally there," he says. "And I knew before we started rehearsals that we'd have the car onstage. What I did after that was to ask myself how I would react under the circumstances if I were Kent. The buggery with the tire iron was just plain old fun."

And lest one think the women in the play are exempt from such violence, think again; for example, Regan gets her own hands dirty in the "eye-fry" scene. "The play is set in a very violent world with characters whose lusts were matched by their ignorance," Sordelet says. "So it was just appropriate for the girls to follow the arc of their behavior by getting their own hands bloody."


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