-Co-authored by Alexander Fitzhugh-
Located in the southern reaches of rural Oregon is a town devoted to Shakespeare. Driving through the streets, the bardolatry knows no bounds. Stylized depictions of his face peek out from store displays, statuary, and the large banners that hang from every street light. Stores, hotels, and restaurants bear his name and the names of characters from his plays. This town is Ashland, and it is the home of the world-renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the largest and longest-running Shakespeare festivals in the United States.
This was my first visit to this fair city, and as we arrived at the theatre, I marvelled at its size. I was privileged to take a backstage tour prior to seeing a performance, where I discovered that “theatre” is an inadequate description. The OSF occupies not a theatre but a theatre complex, with three separate, well-appointed theatre spaces, mazes of corridors, and a small army of actors, crew, and volunteers. The tour was packed with visitors from all over the country, so many that tour almost sold out before my group arrived. It was a problem that rarely, if ever, occurred on the tours I used to conduct at my alma mater, the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.
The OSF runs a staggering repertory of eleven separate plays in its 2013 season, only four of which are actually by Shakespeare. The rest are a mix of plays and musicals new and old, ranging from old standards like My Fair Lady and A Streetcar Named Desire, to the newer and more experimental The Unfortunates and The Tenth Muse. I elected to attend the July 12 matinee performance of King Lear.
As for the play itself? Wonderful. Violent. Gripping.
This Lear was set in the modern day, but this choice was not at all disruptive, as such “updated” Shakespeare productions are often in danger of being. Modern elements were blended seamlessly and even pleasingly with the text, creating many wonderful moments in the juxtaposition, as in 2.1, when the sound of a honking car can be heard in the distance, and Gloucester exclaims, “Hark, the duke’s trumpets!”
The production is staged in the the Thomas Theatre, a smaller, more intimate black box space. The seats in the space can be rearranged according to the demands of each show, and in this case, were arranged arena-style, with rows only six seats deep, giving the production a wonderfully intimate feel. Though smaller than the other theatres, the Thomas sacrifices none of the technical capabilities present in the larger spaces – much of the floor of the central playing space is a cluster of nine motorized traps that can raise and lower set pieces silently and instantaneously in a display of theatrical wizardry almost as entertaining as the play itself. In 3.6, for example, an actual, burning camp fire rises swiftly from the depths to the stage, eliciting delighted murmurs from the audience. The traps make set changes seamless, incredibly quick, and part of the action of the play, integrating the tech crew into the show. Costumed as security guards, they swarm over the stage between scenes, efficiently transforming the stage from one location to another, all in character. The other characters in the play interact with them, acknowledging their presence, lowering their voices when speaking of sensitive information in front of them, ordering them about. A few members of the crew even take some of the servants’ lines. The choice to have the crew as characters in the play itself instead of as “invisible” stage hands makes the play deeply immersive.
Director Bill Rauch plays up the undercurrents of class-consciousness that are usually mere hints running through Shakespeare’s script, highlighting the decadent corruption of the elite. To divide his kingdom in the first scene, Lear, played with heart-rending bombast by the talented Michael Winters, wantonly tears in sections a clearly priceless antique map of England to distribute among his daughters. Throughout the first few acts, the sets ape the modern-day privilege of the upper class – a private basketball court for Gloucester’s sons in 1.2, an expensive leather recliner that would not be out of place in an up-scale condo and high definition television for Lear to lounge in front of in Goneril’s mansion in 1.3, massive wrought iron gates emblazoned with a “G” for Gloucester in Act 2, even a grand piano in Cornwall’s mansion that the Duke of Cornwall is shown incapable of actually playing. All this “outward worth” is starkly contrasted with the inward poverty of compassion, self-awareness, and human emotion that those in power in this play embody.
During the second intermission, taken after Gloucester’s eyes are put out at the end of Act 3, the set undergoes a radical transformation. For the entirety of Act 4, the action takes place around ruined heaps of set pieces from earlier scenes – Lear’s throne, battered and torn, blocks part of the staircase; his recliner from Act 1 sits broken and stained in a corner; twisted lumps of metal that were once candelabras lie in heaps. As the world of the play falls apart, and the characters fall further into madness and dysfunction, so too do their physical surroundings. Act 5 is performed on a bare stage as the world is swept clean of corruption and madness, leaving little left.
Few characters in this production are shown in a sympathetic light. Goneril and Regan shriek as entitled harpies. The Duke of Cornwall showers abuse upon servants and equals alike in jovial displays of psychopathic violence, practically cackling with glee when locking Kent in the stocks and tearing the eyes from Gloucester’s sockets. Edmund is a fascinating, seductive underdog, ready to claw and tear at anyone and anything that gets in his way of achieving his goals. Lear himself is completely delusional, certain of his right to respect, admiration, and love without actually having done anything at all to earn it. Even Cordelia, usually portrayed as sweet and virginal, is played in this production by Sofia Jean Gornez as an almost sullen and rebellious teenager, motivated more by disgust with her sisters than love of her father, whom she really does seem to love only “according to [her] bond; no more nor less.” Even when she is reunited with her father in the fourth act, she seems much more dutiful than loving, irritated by her father’s inability to care for himself.
Indeed, the only truly sympathetic characters in Rauch’s vision are Kent, Edgar, and the Fool. Lear’s Fool, played with a startling intensity by Daisuke Tsuji, starts the play in the actual ticket line of the production, interacting with other audience members, even haggling with scalpers, dressed in a suit, tie, mismatched socks, and with an inexplicable roll of duct tape strapped to his hip. He enters with the audience, sits down with them, and watches the first few scenes of the play before tying an OSF program to his head as his coxcomb and leaping into the action, using the roll of duct tape as his only prop for his hilarious and biting physical comedy. In every subsequent scene that he appears in, his fancy suit falls away, morphing gradually into an elaborate and classically-styled fool’s motley, constructed entirely of duct tape, bits of plastic bags and other trash, all pointedly emblazoned with corporate logos. In a fascinating break from convention, Lear inadvertently stabs his Fool in one of his fits of madness, and the Fool quietly dies in a corner, unnoticed as the others fuss around Lear. Left alone on the stage at the end of 3.6, only Edgar notices or mourns the death of Lear’s “poor Fool,” another bit of collateral damage that the uncaring elites fail to notice or care about.
Peter Frechette’s fervently religious Duke of Albany almost manages to achieve goodness, but speaks against the corruption and abuses running rampant around him too late to do any lasting good. Kent speaks out against Lear’s madness and is banished for it, but returns disguised as a working class man, transforming his voice and mien completely in order to continue to serve Lear. Though portrayed as a basically good and loyal man, his blind devotion to an ultimately corrupt system proves to be his downfall. In the final scene, he proves himself unable to exist outside of the old system, corrupt as it was, and as he exits the stage with his last line he takes with him a large bowie knife, using implied action to reveal his suicidal intent.
Edgar is the only true force for good in this vision of Lear. In his first appearance onstage in 1.2, he is already beginning to reject the corrupt, power-hungry world of his father and his king. He is drunk, and his fancy clothes are dishevelled – he is still a part of of the world of the elite, but he is scornful of it. After Edmund tricks him into going into exile in 2.1 to save himself, Edgar’s next appearance is as Poor Tom (and in this production, the emphasis is very much on the “poor”). Edgar is the only character in this play to completely remove himself from the moral bankruptcy of his family and their society, as evidenced by his complete rejection of their clothes, their language, their social mores, and their sense of entitlement. In 4.6, when Edgar kills Goneril’s servant Oswald to save Gloucester, Oswald offers his purse to Edgar in return for honorable burial. Most productions make the choice to have Edgar either pocket the money or to leave it be; this Edgar throws the purse with violent distaste into the trap into which Oswald’s body descends, as if the mere presence of money is repugnant to his senses, or perhaps to his morality. Edgar is also the only character in the entire play to express horror and remorse for taking a life, even when it is justified. When Edgar kills Oswald, he reacts with shame and horror, telegraphing clearly that this is the first time he has taken a human life. In the final scene, when he prevails over Edmund, there is no triumph, no joy, only profound regret. Upon ascension to the throne, Edgar is neither proud nor victorious, but resigned to a necessary struggle that only he can undertake without falling into the traps of corruption and blind privilege. In the world of this production of Lear, success is hard and painful and offers few rewards other than simple dignity and moral fortitude. To Edgar, kingship is is a job to be done, not a prize to be won.
The 2013 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of King Lear is brutally nihilistic, and beautifully honest. It does not shy away from the horrors that fill this play, but chooses to examine them carefully and unflinchingly. Director Bill Rauch’s examination of class consciousness through the corruption of the elites in Lear’s England resonates strongly in this modern world of staggering economic inequality. The production is wonderfully realized, excellently acted, and seamlessly staged, leaving the audience slightly shell-shocked and extraordinarily thoughtful. If you can get to Ashland, Oregon before November 3, when the show closes, it is most certainly worth your time.