Stop me if you’ve seen this one: An aging, tempestuous, narcissistic ruler craves adulation, exiles those who question him, and neglects those who suffer on the fringes of society.
We’re talking about “King Lear,” obviously, and a Rubicon Theatre Company revival that features skilled performances and a deep understanding of the text to illuminate the enduring relevance of Shakespeare’s cautionary tragedy.
Director James O’Neil has set the piece in mythical pre-history, amid the massive Stonehenge-like ruins that dominate Thomas S. Giamario’s scenic design — a shrewd embodiment of Lear’s calcified reign as he contemplates retirement at the start of the play.
Leading a 20-member cast, George Ball as Lear matches imposing physical stature with a professional singer’s baritone that in sheer commanding resonance recalls James Earl Jones in Joseph Papp’s famed New York Shakespeare Festival production.
Lear’s ill-advised succession planning is fraught with both majesty and folly as he invites his daughters to profess the depth of their love for him in order to enlarge their inheritance. The tell is his lead-in: “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom …” In other words, he’s already divvied it up, and this exchange is pure theater. He merely wants to be flattered.
Ultimately any performance of Lear is only as good as its pronouns, and Ball puts exactly the right entitled weight on the royal “we” and “our” that give way to a humbler, self-aware “I” at painful journey’s end. His reunion with wrongfully banished daughter Cordelia (Sylvie Davidson) is heartbreaking in its remorse and forgiveness, the most moving version I’ve seen.
A stylized, ever-present chorus of homeless, downtrodden subjects bears witness to the follies of the 1%, assists with scene changes and inventive sound effects and, most important, adds a layer of emerging social conscience that Lear acknowledges with his “O, I have ta'en / Too little care of this!”
Another forward-looking theme that director O’Neil handles particularly well involves the sense of upended order — the recurring invocation of “nature” and “unnatural” as characters discover their world is not the one they thought they were living in. The lightning rod for this turbulence is Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper’s superb turn as Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester (George McDaniel). Defying preordained destiny by betraying his father and usurping his “legitimate” brother (Jason McBeth), Edmund prefigures modern existential antiheroes by more than three centuries.
Likewise, prominently including a frequently cut speech establishing the prophetic powers of Louis A. Lotorto’s Fool makes him a figure not just apart from the social order but outside time itself.
And speaking of time, special commendation is due O’Neil’s judicious pruning of more than an hour from the usual “King Lear” marathon while retaining its major through-lines. The most notable casualties are Edmund’s deliciously devious parallel seductions of Lear’s wayward (and married) daughters (Beverly Ward and Meghan Andrews), though enough remains to get the point. As Joel Bryant’s stalwart Kent might put it, I cannot wish the fault undone, the run-time of it being so proper.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays (with evening talkbacks), 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends April 1
Information: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org