A Noise Within's artistic directors bring Shakespeare's towering tragedy to Pasadena.
The clues are there from the opening scene. We witness the first twitch, a rapid, frustrated blinking of the eyes, the mark of a man who has lost the ability to deal with being crossed. Too-honest Cordelia has given the wrong reply to an off-the-wall question, and her royal father snaps and sends her packing, dowerless and abandoned, to France. Mad Lear's decline has begun.
A very rapid slide into dementia is a hallmark of the titular monarch, portrayed by Geoff Elliott, in A Noise Within's production of Shakespeare's King Lear. Lear's foolish decision to divide his kingdom sets him on a path to madness. Daughters Goneril and Regan jockey for power, enlisting the Earl of Gloucester's bastard son, Edmund, to betray his brother and father. While the climactic political battle pits England against France, the real conflicts are within the two families and in Lear's addled brain. The notable part of Julia Rodriguez-Elliott's Lear is how short a distance into mental oblivion this Lear travels and how devastatingly complete his journey proves to be.
His snowy beard aside, Geoff Elliott comes across as neither aged, weak, nor in any way feeble. He towers over Stephen Weingartner's Earl of Kent and, when provoked, looks like he could easily wring the shorter man's neck. But this Lear is at the mercy of a force far greater than the wheel of fire. "O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven," he bleats toward the end of Act 1. Alas, it's already too late. Before he divides up his kingdom, Lear appears in military regalia complete with medals. After the heath, the man is reduced to a loin cloth. His eyes are vacant, he mouths gibberish; his hands grope at his private parts.
Trisha Miller's Goneril and Arie Thompson's Regan both tap into the jealousy of children who know they are not now and will never be their parent's favorite. With Cordelia banished, they finally have their father's full love and attention, but he is no longer the parent either woman wants. Erika Soto's lovely Cordelia proves not only to be a vessel of compassion, she also conveys the desire of a woman who is alone. The stakes of the kingdom's division are higher for her since, inheritance or no inheritance, she'll emerge with a husband, something Soto's Cordelia clearly desires. Although he loses a couple of scenes in the cuts, a bowler-hat-wearing and heavily painted Kasey Mahaffey handles the humor as Lear's Fool, whose demise is ironic and very interesting.
The production utilizes projections of ominous looking brain scans, provided by David Mickey, to highlight Lear's condition. Even without that visual diagnosis, we know what we're seeing, and, before their power-hungry fangs come out, Goneril and Regan's frustration at dealing with their reduced father offers a contextual logic. Nobody enjoys the company of an ailing parent, whether he is traveling with a small army of attendant knights or otherwise.
Watching this Lear's descent (and, briefly, his temporary return to lucidity) is the heartrending centerpiece of a keenly focused and distraction-free production. The period is modern dress (costumes by Angela Balogh-Calin) with the men in suits and – in Lear's case – military regalia and the women wearing formal wear. Fred Kinney's set is an uncluttered warehouse-like space with high peeling gray walls. Nothing is grandiose here.
The text has been neatly trimmed to just under three hours, and the story is keenly focused on the two fracturing families: Lear and his daughters, Gloucester (Apollo Dukakis) and his sons, good-hearted Edgar (Rafael Goldstein) and scheming bastard Edmund (Freddy Douglas). As the warring Gloucester boys, Douglas and Goldstein are a study in contrasts; Edmund, an unassuming buttoned down schemer and Edward a tousle-haired dreamer. Philosophical banter (whether between Lear and the Fool, Kent and the Fool, Lear and Poor Tom) is kept to a minimum. We barely register a word about the brewing conflict between England and France. This production's focus is the war between kin and between sanity and loss of self.
Ultimately, it all circles back to Lear, who will lose everything and get precious little of it back before his life ends. Elliott's Lear is by turns headstrong, a would-be tyrant who thinks he can still whip his belt out of his pants as if he intends to give somebody a thrashing. Given what we know is happening to his faculties, this is every bit a Lear whom we may never have seen in his right mind. Putting this kind of diminishment so fully on display is an act of bravery. As exasperated as we get by Lear himself, he is all of us. Which is why King Lear remains a nearly 400-year-old classic that never gets old.