Madness in many forms cuts a vicious swath through the ancient England of Shakespeare's King Lear. The old monarch appears to be suffering from the onset of senility; his daughters exhibit the madness of power lust and regular old human lust; trusted retainers feign insanity to hide in plain sight from their enemies. And the result of all of this madness is destruction. Families are torn apart, the kingdom rocks on shaky legs and the social order crumbles. The fish rots from the head, and there is no way to stop its progress once it sets in.
Milton Zoth has chosen to set St. Louis Actors' Studio's current production of King Lear back in the misty morning of England, but the show is no historical piece. Zoth's vision pulses with life, as crisp and vibrant as new growth; there's a strange frisson here, as everyone and everything onstage succumbs to the darkness.
John Contini plays Lear with wintery power: a king who abdicates his throne and kingdom to his daughters Regan and Goneril (Missy Heinemann and Meghan Maguire, respectively) in preparation for his "unburthen'd crawl toward death." Why then does he hold so tightly to the shreds of power he retains, his retinue of 100 knights — whom his daughters must house and feed for six months of the year?
Contini mines that contradiction in character ruthlessly for the next two-plus hours. Swinging from morbid to manic, Lear curses his daughters, his adherents, his poor Fool — everyone in sight — and then just as quickly attempts to lean on them for support. When the Earl of Kent (Eric Dean White) tries to persuade him to rescind the order to banish Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia (Jessica Laney), the King turns on him. Contini snarls like a lion chained and raises his hand to strike the loyal Kent, but something stays the blow. What is it that makes Lear lower his arm so slowly, a tremor jittering his hand? Some memory of Kent's long service? Or has he forgotten why he was angry in the first place? Contini's face is shrouded, his eyes unfocused in that dangerous moment; the King is not who he used to be, even to himself.
As he carries us deeper into his own uncertainty and paranoia, Lear carts an ever-heavier load (so far from unburthen'd now), and Contini slumps with exhaustion, bone-weary from all the squabbling. "I think the world is asleep," Lear announces when his Fool is nowhere to be found. Untroubled sleep is something Lear craves, but he still resists that final slumber that is his destiny and his due.
About that Fool: Bobby Miller appears to have been plucked from the third century and plopped onstage, so closely does he inhabit the role. Grubby and shaggy of mane, he singsongs his riddles and aphorisms as if they're incantations that could magic Lear back to sanity. Miller creeps and creaks around stage, spouting nonsense and engaging in elaborate wordplay as easy as breathing. It's a preternatural performance, dazzling and achingly real. When the time comes for the Fool to make his exit, he does so in plain view, stepping off the stage and tottering across the front of the room while the play continues behind him, his perpetual half-smile still playing on his lips.
Now that the Fool is safely away, death sweeps up the rest of the players one by one. Contini gives voice to an unearthly moan when he reappears carrying Cordelia's corpse. It's the sound of a man realizing that he finally has everything he claims to have wanted — an unburdened life free of responsibility and duty — and that he was wrong about everything. It's the final trumpet at the end of an age, and it echoes long.