Poor King Lear. He’s fading fast and simply wants to divide the kingdom into three parts, with each going to his three daughters, Goneril (the oldest), Regan (the middle child) and his youngest, Cordelia. But the old-timer is also not adverse to a little flattery and ass-kissing in his dotage, to which Goneril and Regan provide sustenance. Meanwhile his favorite, Cordelia, tells him the truth, that she cannot put her feelings to him into words. Turning suddenly into a petulant crank, Lear responds rather badly, setting into motion acts of maddening hubris that destroy his kingdom and nearly everyone in it. At the end he lies dead next to his beloved (and executed) Cordelia, near to his murdered Regan (poisoned by Goneril) and subsequent suicide, his Goneril.
Ah, family life. Me thinks that the good Bard was not a big fan of it.
This is one difficult play to stage, what with all the deaths piling up as Lear goes mad and those around him plot and scheme their way to early graves. Director Terrence O’Brien has taken a less-is-more approach, as did the famed Peter Brook, who directed Paul Scofield in the most famous staged-production at Stratford-on-Avon in 1962. Using a blank stage and a few incidental props, O’Brien lets the power of the characters overwhelm the murderous plot. And of course the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Company is up to the task.
With Stephen Paul Johnson ranting, raving and clinging to his little bit of sanity as Lear, the production is in better than just good hands. Johnson is not without a certain sly charm in this portrayal, giving Lear a what-once-was peek back to his glory days a special resonance. Johnson’s Lear still has vitality, he’s not just an old coot ready to be put out to pasture. The old boy still has some fight in him. He just wants to see that his kingdom stays in the family. He’s a kind of early version of Vito Corleone, a force of nature succumbing to his unreflected-upon limitations and the consequences thereof.
The three daughters are well cast. Chiara Motley as Goneril and Eleanor Handley as Regan are devious and cold-hearted, manipulating all around them to murder and treachery. Jessica Frey as Cordelia is different. But her naive truth-telling does not set us free. The story is propelled to its grizzly conclusion.
This quartet of powerful performances bring to mind the fable of the scorpion riding the frog across a river. He kills it and explains while drowning: “It is just my nature.” Each member of this happy family is trapped according to their nature in that fated world of action and reaction.
An engaging subplot concerns the loyal-to-the-King Earl of Gloucester, his elder son Edgar and his younger bastard son Edmund, who has twisted the poor old earl into thinking that his “real” son is out to usurp him. Like Lear, Gloucester reacts badly, banishing Edgar to the hinterlands of England. And like with the king he also discovers that he is easily fooled by a progeny who caters to his insecurities. All seems lost as poor Gloucester, friendless, and with his eyes gouged out by a malevolent Duke of Cornwall (husband of Regan), meets a madman called Tom O’Bedlam roaming the moors. Tom, his son Edgar in disguise, saves his life, while bastard son Edmund seduces both Goneril and Regan to gain power. The Duke of Albany (husband of Goneril) is disgusted with the goings on and denounces his wife. This leads to the deaths of both sisters. And the venal Edmund.
All here are superb: Richard Ercole as Gloucester, Ryan Quinn as Edmund, Michael Borelli as Cornwall, and Dan Matise as Albany. Particularly notable is Charlie Francis Murphy as Edgar, who gives this family business a better shake, standing by his misled father in his hour of danger. Besides offering the few minutes of humor in Lear as Tom the Fool, speaking a stream-of-consciousness Renaissance rap, Edgar’s sincerity in initially hiding who he is from his father is a beautiful counterpoint to not only brother Edmund’s conceit but also to Lear’s dysfunctional family. Murphy handles the role perfectly.
But the play is King Lear. Johnson, going stark, raving mad, finally realizes what he has done. He teams with Cordelia, who is leading a French army against her own country, to try and right his wrongs. But it is too late. Everyone save Albany, Lear’s loyal lieutenant Kent and Edgar are dead. As he carries Cordelia’s body onstage, Lear laments:
“Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone forever!
I know when one is dead and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth.”
But heaven does not crack. And we are left with the corpse of Cordelia and a howling, insane old king, ready for death. I guess that is the true nature of things.
Hudson Valley Shakespeare’s 27th year at beautiful Boscobel overlooking the Hudson is also offering the Bard’s “All’s Well That Ends Well” and Dumas, “Three Musketeers.” The three plays will run until September 1 at Boscobel, which is located just a mile South of Cold Spring on Route 9D, overlooking Constitution Island and West Point on the Hudson. Online sales are at hvshakespeare.org or call the box office at 265-9575 for tickets and/or information.