Like the mad king himself, Marcus Gardley’s world premiere version of “Lear” feels quite volatile, blowing hot and cold for three hours at the California Shakespeare Theater.
Gardley is a gifted Oakland playwright best known for the sublime “black odyssey” and “And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi.” Here, he transports the Shakespearean tragedy into 1960s San Francisco with Black Power on the rise and jazz in the air.
The adventurous African American-centered staging begins with an insightful prologue by the dead Queen (an elegant Velina Brown), a character not found in the original text. She bemoans the king’s spiral into despair, plunged into madness by his naked grief at her loss.
Brown imbues her speech with great sensitivity, raising expectations that Gardley has found a bold new way to drill down into Lear’s plight. Perhaps he’s more distraught than demented. Convention be damned.
As she purrs, “if you’re a scholar, try not to holler.”
Alas, most of the rest of the adaptation feels tacked on in this staging, which is co-directed by Dawn Monique Williams and Cal Shakes artistic director Eric Ting in his swan song to Cal Shakes. It’s also part of Play On Shakespeare, a commissioning project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
References to the Black Panthers and the African Americans dispossessed by eminent domain never feel rooted in the drama as the pampered ruler (James A. Williams) pits his three daughters, pure-hearted Cordelia (Sam Jackson) and the scheming Regan (Emma Van Lare) and Goneril (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) against each other, cheating himself out of his throne.
Gardley tries to connect Lear’s fall from power with the historical oppression of the African American community. But there’s a disconnect between the life of a quixotic monarch and the plight of the disenfranchised.
When this Lear dashes out into the storm on the blasted heath, he tries to evoke the suffering of the region’s vast homeless population.
But that doesn’t track because a king always chooses his own destiny. He willfully brings on his own downfall despite the repeated warnings of his retinue, particularly the wry stand-up comedy of his fool (an exquisitely tart turn by Jackson). The impoverished in our society often don’t have the luxury of charting their own course.
Williams also doesn’t find much texture in Lear’s shattered mind, his lightning strikes of rage, or the slowly dawning realization of his fateful error.
A repeated joke about Hayward also feels a little insensitive to issues of class and race today.
The production most vividly throbs to life as Brown croons period tunes into a microphone, the redoubtable Jomar Tagatac revels in Edmund’s over-the-top villainy or the ensemble creates striking stage pictures.
Behold three sisters draped in black dresses holding ivory bouquets against a white backdrop. Or the fool wisecracking on a foot stool with a cigarette dangling from her lips. In these moments, this vision of the tragedy possesses a clarity the rest of the staging lacks, a shortcoming highlighted by the epilogue, which spells out themes that don’t feel earned by the production.
Contact Karen D’Souza at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Marcus Gardley, adapted from …read more
Source:: The Mercury News – Latest News
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