On a bombed-out set suggesting the bleak terrain of war, Robert Cohen’s “radically reconceived” version of “King Lear” at UC Irvine begins with a perverse smile.
It seems as though a Gilbert and Sullivan farce has taken up residence at Lear’s palace amid rusted carcasses of machinery and automobile parts, which are embedded like shrapnel in the walls.
Awaiting the king’s arrival, the dashing young Kent and the white-bearded Gloucester have the look of gaudy toy soldiers. They wear resplendent quasi-Victorian uniforms of maroon and gold braid with epaulets and sashes.
And while the two of them make cocktail party small talk about affairs of state and family, Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, obsequiously bends to polish one of dear pater’s boots.
Cornwall and Albany enter in white tie and tails--their ribbons indicating diplomatic rank--accompanied by three prom queens in strapless gowns and bustles. These are Lear’s daughters: Goneril in brown, Regan in green and Cordelia in blue. It is, to say the least, peculiar.
More peculiar still, a praetorian guard of modern infantry commandos fills the stage when Lear arrives. The assembled members of the court greet him with deferential applause. The applause grows into an ovation. The ovation breaks into rhythmic clapping. It is fervent, aggressive, insistent, prolonged. Are we suddenly in “Evita?”
The object of this veneration looks like Super General himself, a sort of Sun King with a gray goatee in hybrid military get-up. Tall and austere, Lear wears a crown on his head and a regal bronze collar worthy of the Pharaohs. But he is old. He is tired of governing. He wants to be loved, really loved.
The arch setup turns out to be a shrewd piece of theater. It both mocks and underscores the stifling unreality of Lear’s court. The applause is an especially nice touch, tipping us not only to the sycophancy that surrounds Lear but to his egomania.
The brittle inner logic of the scene also makes plausible Lear’s division of the kingdom, which is usually a tough sell. We cluck our tongues yet understand when Lear gives half the realm to Goneril and half to Regan for their flattery and zip to Cordelia for her honesty.
Far from being the “radical reconception” that Cohen has termed it, however, this “King Lear” appears to be a radical revelation. It goes in for essentials. Despite varied and highly theatrical unorthodoxies, the classic arc of Lear laid low by his own arrogance is traced with singular intensity. It clarifies.
Admittedly, the production sometimes lapses into radical reduction. It mugs. It has a tendency to impose simplistic illustrations, to become a “Lear” primer. But it assiduously avoids murkiness, the great pitfall of many a Shakespeare production. It also moves swiftly, despite an epic length of 3 hours and 15 minutes. It works.
The student cast handles the Elizabethan language with striking fluency. The line readings are remarkable for their conversational flow (even if they come trippingly off some tongues at a shrill pitch). More striking is how effectively the text is plumbed for meaning. The director has done a brilliant job integrating it with the action, focusing the stage business.
At its best, we feel the primacy of the relationship between Lear and his Fool. We need not deduce it. We see it in the warmth of their intimacy. When the Fool cleverly plucks Lear’s beard and hair and tells him with typical irony, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” Lear might be looking in a mirror.
The Fool is the only one at ease with Lear. That has the effect of exalting their relationship. And the charm of their scenes together seems to rub off on UCI drama professor Dudley Knight, who plays Lear. At the premiere Thursday, he generally achieved a dry, competent portrayal. Opposite Larry Biederman’s richly played Fool, he gained depth, range and subtlety.
With less success, the production also fleshes out the characters of Lear’s two scheming daughters, Regan (Michelle McHugh) and Goneril (Pamela Livingstone)--going well beyond the usual depictions into the realm of “Roger Rabbit.”
Regan, once out of her prom gown, vamps around in skin-tight pants and knee-high boots like an evil-minded Jessica. Always on the prowl for some useful seduction, at one point she trots out in a black garter belt and stockings (unintentionally drawing laughs on opening night).
Goneril, less conspicuously curvy, is no less a schemer. She dispatches sly letters about mad old dad and his nasty retinue. A royal matron, she stalks the palace halls in the basic royal house dress--a fur coat (presumably mink)--on the lookout for bad news.
Cordelia eludes characterization altogether. Shakespeare didn’t write a great role there, and Luck Hari doesn’t bring much to it besides blandness.
Meanwhile, Jonathan S. Greenman is thoroughly persuasive as the duplicitous Edmund, standing up for bastards with sharp contempt. And Mark Booher gives a consistently fine performance as Kent.
UCI visiting lecturer Ray Reinhard unwinds as Gloucester by the second act. Still, Gloucester’s relationship with Edgar (Philip Thompson) never attains the pathos it should.
The lighting and set design work well. The incidental music is attractive (though sometimes too obviously exploited), and the sound design technically sophisticated.
A production of the UC Irvine School of Fine Arts-Drama. Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Cohen. With Dudley Knight, Steven Vermeulen, James Calleri, Chris Leebrick, Adam Menken, Mark Booher, Ray Reinhardt, Philip Thompson, Jonathan S. Greenman, Larry Biederman, Seth Donsky, Mark Nash, Joe Batte, Michael Joseph Robinson, Pamela Livingstone, Michelle McHugh, Luck Hari and others. Scenery by Abdullah Al-Kuwari. Costumes by Elizabeth Novak. Lighting by Leslie A. Barry. Composition/sound by Paul Hodgins. Performances at the Fine Arts Concert Hall, UCI. Curtain times: 8 p.m. today through Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets $7 to $9. Information: (714) 856-6166.