SC Shakespeare Company’s “King Lear” Well Crafted, Easy to Follow

Review by August Krickel

I didn’t think it was possible. King Lear has never been among my favorite Shakespearean plays, or characters, but the South Carolina Shakespeare Company’s production, running through this weekend in Finlay Park, has made me reconsider. With excellent performances by the lead actors and precise attention to the text and its meaning by director Linda Khoury, this King Lear is a fast-paced tale of palace intrigue complicated (or perhaps instigated) by family dysfunction.

The familiar story revolves around the aging ruler of Iron Age Britain who plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. While the eldest two heap insincere flattery on him, knowing that this will enlarge their husband’s dukedoms, the youngest, Cordelia, has inherited her beloved father’s pride, stubbornness, and volatility, and balks at the notion of having to prove her love to obtain her dowry. All hell breaks loose, and Lear banishes both Cordelia and Kent, a loyal earl who dares to question Lear’s decision. When his two remaining daughters take control, Lear realizes too late that he is at their mercy, pitches a royal fit, and shows his ass (on opening night both literally as well as figuratively, in an unplanned wardrobe malfunction.) Storming out into bleak terrain just as a literal storm commences, accompanied by only his jester and Kent (now disguised in order to continue serving his liege),  Lear is driven over the edge into actual madness by prolonged rage and exposure to the elements.

Lear is a difficult character for many to sympathize with, since he has few redeeming qualities, apart from an eloquent way with words, courtesy of that dialogue-writing William guy. Yet plenty of characters remain loyal to him, and risk their lives in a conspiracy to restore him to power. I never understood how he could be seen as a tragic hero, until I experienced the interaction between Chris Cook as Lear and Katie Mixon as Cordelia. As Lear’s fury subsides (thanks to rest, and to some inventive staging by Khoury where we see doctors bearing soothing herbs – probably some ancient brew of chamomile tea and St. John’s Wort) he realizes how cruelly he has treated his daughter. With body language, expressions, tears, and just a few lines, Mixon allows us to understand the genuine connection that once existed between father and daughter. Lear’s tragedy as protagonist, if not exactly hero, becomes apparent in his remorse for his actions, which have resulted in fatal consequences for both family and kingdom, and the pain in Cook’s voice and face is heartbreaking. He’s awfully vigorous and spry for such an elderly character, but his command of the eloquent blank verse is just beautiful to see and hear.

What I had forgotten from both high school English class and from seeing two previous productions, or possibly never realized, is that Lear’s sons-in-law are likely to go to war once the kingdom is divided, and that Edmund, bastard son of the loyal Earl of Gloucester, realizes that if he can get his father and brother out of the way, he can rise to power in the imminent conflict. The knowing looks and provocative glances from Lear’s daughters – another clever bit of business from Khoury – can only increase his prospects. Meanwhile, the “good” characters are all in touch via letters with Cordelia, now Queen of France, who is leading an army to rescue her father (since the French rarely need an excuse to attack the English.)  By emphasizing the text and therefore the story, Khoury enables the audience to follow the larger plot, which is more than a little reminiscent of Game of Thrones. She has trimmed the script down to a run time of a little over two and half hours (plus intermission), but wisely leaves in every tiny moment of exposition, while ensuring that her actors speak trippingly on the tongue, suiting the action to the word and the word to the action (to steal a few lines from Hamlet.)

Raia Hirsch and Sara Blanks, as Goneril and Regan, Lear’s older daughters, are appropriately evil, and happily resemble both Mixon and each other. A nice subtle touch is their seemingly reasonable request that Lear give up his retinue of knights; their clarity of delivery reveals that however economical, their plan will “coincidentally” leave Lear with no bodyguards and therefore no defenses. Bobby Bloom as Edmund is the master of both the soliloquy and the aside, gleefully keeping the audience posted as each component of his plot unfolds. Jeff Driggers as the Fool goes for a post-modern interpretation, less a jester and more a wickedly sarcastic adviser to the King.  Scholars have always debated why the Fool disappears halfway through the play; one possibility is that the same boy actor also played Cordelia, but Khoury has a fascinating alternative answer.  Tracy Steele does good work as Kent, although the role needs more of a grizzled Sean Connery/Liam Neeson figure, while Steele suggests a handsome young knight as played by Bradley Cooper or Ryan Reynolds. Among the supporting cast, in general, the smaller the role, the less proficient and/or experienced the actor appears, but as above, not a word is missed, and every syllable on stage is clearly understood.

Lee Shepherd’s set design is simple, stark, and effective, consisting of stone architecture and flying buttresses that place the setting in ancient times, and giant wooden double doors that not only make for grand entrances, but also give the actors plenty of room to wait unseen before entering. Alexis Doktor’s costumes for the principals, especially Lear’s nuclear family and Edmund, are appealing and sumptuously detailed, incorporating rich shades of purple and crimson along with black.  I suspect half the audience was dying to know where she found the incredible fabrics, although the attire of some of the supporting cast looked more like pajamas. Bloom doubles as fight choreographer, and although some of the cast need a few more days in stage combat boot camp, his own duel with William Cavitt (as Gloucester’s noble son Edgar) is impressive:  Edmund draws two shortswords or long knives to attack his brother, and the possibilities with two combatants, three weapons and four hands are almost limitless.

King Lear continues Wednesday 10/22 through Saturday 10/25 in the amphitheater in Finlay Park. If you’re going, be sure to take folding chairs or comfy cushions, a picnic basket if you’re inclined, and a blanket or jacket in case the weather turns colder. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, right as night falls, so grab hold of the railing as you navigate the stairs to your seat.  Also, assume it’s a manifestation of Lear’s delusion if random park patrons and passers-by accidentally wander onto the fringes of the stage.  (The City really needs to station a few of those Yellow Shirt guys to ensure that doesn’t happen again.)  The play has challenged students in classrooms for centuries, so you owe it to yourself to see this excellently-realized rendition of a classic. It’s easy to follow, thrilling to watch, and c’mon – it’s Shakespeare in the Park, which gives our little town and all of us in it some big city arts cred.