King Lear is a rich, complex, immensely sad play that seems written for our times. William Shakespeare expertly wove together many themes: identity, truth, growing old, family, leadership, the overwhelming heartbreak of life. It's the last of these themes -- how to confront what seems like pervasive nihilism -- that seems to resonate especially now, at the beginning of our "new kind of war." Shakespeare shows us: There's no such thing. There is and always has been abundant evil surrounding us, and our own actions can bring on unintended consequences. It's this combination of fate and will that controls our lives, starts wars and, in the play, tears apart Lear's heart, kingdom and family.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' current production serves the play excellently. It's a challenge to watch, both in its length and in the parade of tragic events. But sometimes we benefit by looking into the void; as Edgar says, "The weight of this sad time we must obey." This makes the play ultimately rewarding, not because it supplies a cathartic balm to explain away the evil in the world -- it doesn't -- but, conversely, because it helps us confront grief and evil in a poetic, artistic way.
The production is full of great performances, especially from the villains of the piece, Pamela Nyberg and Robin Moseley as the nefarious daughters Goneril and Regan, respectively; and Conan McCarty, who plays Edmund (a true bastard in more ways than one) with relish. Their performances are chilling because their characters, evil as they are, are recognizably human.
Local favorite Joneal Joplin tackles the formidable role of Lear, giving the king proper dignity and bombast -- perhaps a bit too much of the latter quality. His second act is more modulated than his first, and his final mad scene, which brings together Lear and the now-blind Earl of Gloucester (an excellent Philip Pleasants), is one of the highlights of the show. The two old men, both of whom have made wrongheaded, rash decisions about their children, meet their fates together, one sightless, one mad. Joplin is especially moving when, after reuniting with Cordelia (Rachel Botchan), he seems to have found wisdom and peace on the other side of madness. Unfortunately, the peace is short-lived as the tragedy unfolds to its heartbreaking conclusion. Is it any wonder the Victorians ended the play after the reunion scene?
Director Edward Stern stages the play expertly against Karen TenEyck's set, which combines dirt, glass and metal to look primitive and modern at the same time (one can't help but think of the World Trade Center ruins). Stern's storytelling is crisp, and he mostly moves the plot forward with a speed that emphasizes its inevitability. The exceptions are the Fool scenes, which are played as if they were forerunners of Beckett. The Fool (Dale Hodges) and Lear sit side by side, motionless, in the bleak landscape. Though an intriguing choice, it bogs down the scenes, sapping them of any energy and slowing the play's momentum.
Stern puts his stamp on the production (and ensures second-guessing by critics) by solving the "Fool problem" -- the character abruptly disappears -- with an audacious choice: He has Lear kill his sidekick. According to the producers' notes, it's an act of compassion, because the Fool is near death and unable to face life's cruelty. But because nothing in the text or the performances supports or leads to this, it comes across as a cruel aspect of Lear's madness.
Incredibly, this is Joplin's 82nd performance at the Rep, in shows dating back to 1972, a tribute both to the wonderful actor and to the strengths and purposes of regional theater. One hopes that the Rep will find and cultivate some new Joplins, young local talents who can "work their way up," as Jop has done, and 30 years from now look back on a lifetime of great performances played out on a hometown stage.