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Land of the Dread

Diffusion now hath made his masterpiece in Center Stage’s King Lear

I CAN’T GO ON I’LL GO ON: It isn’t good to be the King For Lear (Stephen Markle), with Cordelia (Heidi Armbruster).

By John Barry | Posted 10/5/2005

You may not get what you came for in Center Stage’s fascinating production of King Lear. There’s no mind-blowing, raving main character raging against the dying of the light: This is a world that collapses—literally—under its own weight. The effect isn’t exactly uplifting, but this production comes closer than most to capturing the nihilistic center of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Robert Israel’s large, vacant set, with its huge boulder stage right, drains the stage of any sort of centripetal force. It certainly overwhelms Lear (Stephen Markle), who comes out as an unimpressive dolt whose downfall is more a product of inertia than high tragedy. His fall from glory isn’t this production’s focus. Instead, almost by default, the spotlight falls on what crawls out from under the rocks: a slimy assortment of second-tier characters usually left in the shadow of Lear’s madness.

The mood of distraction and disintegration is set early on. In the first act, to the bleating of an off-key trumpet, Lear appears inside what appears to be a fixer-upper palace, with a scratched-up central pillar and a bedraggled map of his dominion pinned to the wall. The only glimpse of the outside is of a battleground that looks more like Ypres during the Great War than the Scottish heath. The focus filters early on to the evil duo of daughters, Regan (Diana LaMar) and Goneril (Sarah Knowlton), who declare their love to their dad with offhand, atonal voices that even Lear doubts.

Then Cordelia (Heidi Armbruster), when asked, refuses to tell Lear how much she loves him. Lear’s reaction to his daughter’s “nothing” is downsized to something a little beyond petulant. With or without his crown—which looks like it was cut out in a third-grade art class—Lear is this production’s village idiot. And his fool (Laurence O’Dwyer) tries to counteract that with a weary sobriety between the gag lines. The rest of the play isn’t so much a fall from heights as it is an extended dissolution for a guy who, compared to most Lears, was headed for the rest home anyway. By the end, when Lear realizes that he’s got nothing left to lose, it’s difficult to believe that he had that much to begin with.

The charisma belongs to the bad guys, who are left hashing out the Balkanization of Britain. Regan and Goneril co-conspire and then catfight furiously. Edmund (Jon Casey), the bastard, offers an enjoyably over-the-top performance as the predatory black sheep, and is almost appealing in the effortlessness of his machinations. With evident amusement, he watches the cherries dropping in his lap. It’s not really that he’s power-hungry—although that certainly figures into it. He simply enjoys the spectacle of Regan and Goneril scratching out each other’s eyes—and eventually killing one another—for the privilege of sleeping with him.

The production, like the play itself, is elemental. If the set is any indication, the entire kingdom is a wasteland falling apart at the seams. Even the set itself falls victim to the process as large chunks start toppling over in Act 2. The musical accompaniment is stripped to the minimum: a poor man’s orchestra that makes due with whatever’s at hand, bleating and squeaking at transitional moments. The onstage musician (Karen Hansen) looks as depressed as everyone else is by the proceedings.

Almost because of its empty center, this production breeds interesting forms of life on the edges. The dazed, hapless Oswald (Conan McCarty) finds himself being swatted around like a badminton shuttlecock. Regan’s husband, Cornwall (James O’Neil), is flamboyantly chesty, and Albany (David Adkins) is a slimy greaseball who is even more hypocritical for having a moral sense. Armbruster’s Cordelia, who is supposed to shine in the darkness as an icon of moral purity, is more of a blond B-grade starlet whose demise doesn’t really leave much of a hole. Gloucester (David Cromwell) is a convincing victim, once his eyes get taken out; until then, though, he is almost invisible.

In the end, the only figure with his virtue intact is Kent, who is played with a comforting, professorial tone by a very appealing Michael Rudko. But, faced with the aftermath—and a kingdom if he wants it—he takes his leave. And you can’t blame him. In this production, sniping and griping is the only form of recreation. Once that’s gone, we’re left with a chilly void, in which only the cockroaches survive; though they, too, get their comeuppance. If you really want to see King Lear in the post-apocalypse, check out Beckett’s Endgame; but this production comes pretty close.

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