Some call King Lear the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies, but it is among the least performed of his major plays. In number of productions, it doesn't make the Shakespeare Top 10 of England's Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Broadway. The story of the old king who divides his kingdom among his daughters with calamitous consequences is certainly among the most analyzed, and playing Lear has been considered a crowning achievement for elder actors, but the role and the play itself also have the reputation of being un-actable.
Shakespeare is a master of synthesis, and scholar Maynard Mack makes a convincing case that the preponderance of very bad and very good characters surrounding Lear is due in part to this drama's roots in medieval morality plays. But virtue is not rewarded, and the demise of the king and his good daughter Cordelia was so shocking that for more than a century the play was rewritten with a happy ending.
Though the play invites it, the laying on of theory is not always useful to those who must act it. A couple of famous 1960s productions (Herbert Blau's in San Francisco, Peter Brook's in England) took an existential tack, emphasizing the march towards nullity. But when Brook explained this approach to Paul Schofield, his lead actor who became the most praised Lear of his generation, Schofield replied that this might be true but it didn't help him. "I can't play negative actions." He had to be "fully active, moment after moment, even in loss, even in defeat."
Undaunted by any of this, the Young Actors Guild of the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy presented King Lear in the Gist Theatre last weekend, directed by Jean Bazemore. The audience was greeted with only a crown on the edge of Gerald Beck's otherwise empty set, inviting us to consider kingship, which could suggest mastery of the self as well as others, and the ideal of completeness in the fullness of years. Whether Lear attains this through the coming trials is a central question.
The set remains mostly bare throughout the play, which is probably how Shakespeare's troupe first staged it. In the choice of where they stand, the actors could use the many platform levels to express the shifting power relationships.
Bazemore also chose minimalist effects, particularly in the troublesome storm scene and the blinding of one character. The acting style seemed modest as well: brisk and presentational, giving us the words and actions to interpret ourselves. Though probably also borne of necessity, this was a wise choice. A teenager trying to mimic the infirmities of age, for example, could easily become comic.
Instead there was emphasis on making the words clear -- both their poetry and what they mean within the play. Except for some uncertain and cell phone-sounding diction, this was largely successful. Several of the actors I saw were particularly good vocally, with moments of eloquence: for example, Caleb McIlraith as Lear, Alexander Johnson as Kent and Keenan Hilton as Edmund.
Hilton also managed to alternate obsequiousness with a sneer to give us the character of Edmund in a glance. (Maybe he's worked in fast food?) Jules Eubanks played the good brother Edgar with quiet assurance, while Nick Roney portrayed his alter-ego Tom O'Bedlam with a slithery physicality. Samantha Biasca was instantly sympathetic as Cordelia, and Navarra Carr trembled with rage as the bad Goneril while Hayley Connors-Keith was an insinuatingly evil Regan. Jesse Drucker as Glouchester, Izzy Samuels as Albany, Keli Rael Floyd as the Fool, Evan Mahoney-Moyer as Cornwall and Patrick Roberts as Oswald acquitted themselves well.
The other actors I saw included Dawut Sassanapitax, Nicholas Mundy, Elena Hernandez, Shantal Polit, Gisela Bueno, Galina Schroder, Serena Sprater, Vasin Pasda and Yagmur Khan. Many major roles were double-cast, so I didn't see Sylvan Arevalo as Lear, or Miriam Cook, Kaylee Wennerholm, Genay Pilarowski, Rachel Scherer, Rosie O'Leary, Reed Benoit, Camden Bruner, Aimee Talmadge and Zoe Huber. Chris Sutter and Kaela Sutter designed excellent costumes.
Of the many themes and elements of this capacious play, I thought in watching this production not only of the personal journey of age but a societal journey of the moment, from the sheltered wealth of Lear's court to his mad stumble through the storm of loss and naked need, eventually warmed by the brief candle of compassion.
The quality of Northcoast Prep productions often makes you forget that these are high school students. This wasn't always the case with King Lear, but the beauty of an un-actable play (as Shakespearian actor and Slings and Arrows star Paul Gross points out) is the freedom to try things when failure is inevitable. And some of the beauty of Shakespeare involves the worlds his plays open up to participants and audience alike, redefining the perfect production that can never be attained.
Coming Up: In its second and final weekend (Dec. 18-20 at 8) A Very Playhouse Christmas, the annual Christmas variety show with different special guests each night, this year including Lila Nelson, Jane Hill, Art Jones, the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir and more. www.arcataplayhouse.com.