Shakespeare is performed often enough that people frequently fail to take notice unless somebody famous is in a given production. Well, the Aulis Collective for Theatre and Media’s production of King Lear boasts Ralph Waite. Even if his name doesn’t immediately strike you, you may very well remember Waite as the father on the ’70s TV series The Waltons. But, as the actor’s bio says “That was enough of that.” Waite afterward turned mostly to film and to the stage, where he pops up now and again in New York and throughout the country.
I suppose any actor in his 60s or 70s covets Lear, since there are so few great roles for older men; but most people probably think of Waite as demure and dignified, a great contrast to the foolish, railing King Lear, who cruelly rejects his favorite daughter and is subsequently punished by being ejected from his own kingdom. Waite’s soft-spokenness is, in fact sometimes a detriment in this play, especially during the famous storm scenes; yet there is a thoroughly believable grandfatherliness about him that makes his Lear ultimately touching. The character’s transformation from a doddering, cranky, child-like, old man to a mad-yet-wise, tragic figure is keenly felt.
Of course, King Lear is not all about King Lear. There is an entire production surrounding Waite, and an excellent one at that. The cast is generally good, Mary Houston’s scenic design is simple (as it should be), Andrea Huelse’s costumes have the appropriate drabness of royal, medieval chic about them, and Aaron Spivey’s lighting helps set the pace and tone of the show. The fight scenes are well choreographed by Samantha Phillips, and Bernice Rohret’s direction is elegant and fluid, allowing Shakespeare’s magic to work without heavy-handed intrusion.
One of the finest touches is Carl Schimmel’s original music, played by Schimmel himself (on piano), Meighan Stoops on clarinet (Evan L. Spritzer subbed on the afternoon I saw the show), and Robert Burkhart on cello, with the further contribution of Beth Griffith’s superbly eerie soprano voice. If ever a play demanded underscoring, it’s King Lear; Schimmel’s moody music evokes the period and helps to create an atmosphere of tension, fear, and madness.
This is without doubt a very good production of Lear, but it doesn’t offer any original interpretation or spin on the material. In her director’s note, Rohret writes about the ways that violence is passed down through generations in Lear. (Aulis is dedicated to examining domestic violence as it relates to the world). Though an exploration of this theme would surely add an interesting new dimension to the play, it simply doesn’t come through in the presentation. Furthermore, some of the text’s more poignant moments don’t fully resonate–e.g., Gloucester’s “fall” off the Dover Cliff, and even the deaths of Cordelia and Lear.
But if this is not an exceptional or unique Lear, it offers a solid and faithful retelling of a great Shakespearean tale. With everyone working so hard to make the old master hip and up-to-date these days, there’s something to be said for trusting the genius of the text. King Lear is full of sex, violence, and sturm und drang here–just as it was when it originally stormed the stage 400 years ago.