Cal Shakes presented under the light of a super moon on Saturday evening, a gut wrenching performance of it’s summer 2015 finale’ Shakespeare’s tragedy about a loony patriarch, ‘King Lear’ starring veteran actor Anthony Heald. Heald was born in New York a year before World War II ended. Heald at 71 looks and sounds a little like Nick Nolte in ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’. As such, Heald elevates the production above regional theater in white collar Contra Costa County, under the direction of Amanda Dehnert. However, while Cal Shakes does well consistently with comedy, the tragedies seem harder to deliver without pulling punches. Alas, we should be cutting off the horse’s head and leaving it between the satin sheets of our enemy. Yet Cal Shakes is a summer festival of light hearted picnics under the eucalyptus grove, only this last warm weekend growing dark before curtain while an owl hooted in the upper grove, bats darted from tree to tree and wild turkeys came out of the green shrubery in the crevasses of the dry hillsides rising above the theater. It’s a timeless setting lending itself gently to a suspension of reality and the drama within.
Nevertheless, Heald the well-seasoned Shakespearean brought a raw openness, a complete comfort with himself and the stage, his vocal and physical expressiveness making his performance a commanding one. If Heald’s antics seem funny it’s to prove the point the king is losing his mind as he himself feels in his weakening heart. Heald’s effortless sense of purpose and command of himself and the role elevated his performance of the doomed king and of the production to riveting and tear jerking. Heald’s Lear with the dying king’s ultimate, wrenching cries of helplessness, excrutiating pain and senseless loss as a father would bring an audience to tears.
Related: Chilling drama and campy horror await at upscale venues
Related: World War II aircraft carrier presents Halloween attraction ‘Haunted Hornet’
Heald dramatically portrays the end of his character’s life in anguish but mercifully, quietly like a flame finally being doused. All is lost and burned to the ground leaving no more to burn, the ruin and seeming revenge upon him complete. It’s reminiscent of the ending in Sweeney Todd and he’s the demon barber who suddenly and finally realizes his revenge has gone way too far and out of control with no going back, with no more to live for. Yet Lear is the one demonized. One just has to wonder what or whom exactly was the weapon of mass destruction in this family. The elderly king instead of waiting until his death to distribute his lands, divides the property into three equal pieces to give to his three children, all girls. The discordance and amorality of the two oldest daughters comes from somewhere in the structure of the family and court rather than Lear personally as there is never any discussion of why the girls would shut their father out after they take control. The audience sees nothing that shows the king and father deserves what he will get in his dying days. The diabolic turns just seem so cold, as if the daughters were feral.
Related: ‘Sweeney Todd’ at SF Opera with Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett
The heirs at first just seem innocuous as if going through the motions when the king summons them to give them all his land. He playfully tells them to express their adoration for him first, seeming routine as if performing stupid pet tricks. He’s being cool. However it’s not routine because when his playful youngest daughter gets cute and cleverly refuses to go through the motions because she really loves him, playing the favorite, the old man literally turns red. Anthony Heald’s face really turned a furious shade of red. Yet even with the king’s own tantrum, he seemed to have no indication whatsoever his two eldest daughters would turn savage with the power he simply handed them. It had seemed almost a matter of course to the king because they had come of age, rather than because he was old and becoming feebleminded. So, the land was just in exchange for some trifle of ceremony, some simple and gratuitous ass kissing, albeit formally and before the court.
All the stage is a cage
It’s the character of the girls that just seems barbaric, like a lifetime of rage being released from it’s cage. Daniel Ostling designed a dynamic chain fence box that opened and closed to create multiple dimensions, a refuge, a castle, a torture chamber. The staging had Lear on top in a storm, creating a compelling visual dynamic as the king begins losing himself and all he had. The stage included many old fashioned movie lights on stands, unrelenting and all around. Lear’s throne said it all though, the royal chair on wheels making it a wheelchair. The costumes on each character and in every scene say this is a battle, as everybody male or female dresses as a warrior. Melissa Torchia took classic pieces such as overcoats and men’s suit jackets and added military finery giving them a science fiction look. The eldest girls have turned out to be warriors. They dress as warriors, not maidens, not brides, not princesses. If Regan the second daughter and the most savage wears a dress, it’s bodice gets wrapped in black leather straps. There’s also the absence of any mother or even ladies in waiting or nannies. It must be particularly hard being a single parent when the children are all of the opposite gender. One surmises while reading between the lines that the eldest girls had grown up resenting their father’s royalty and neglect and the fact that they are not sons. Perhaps the old man meant well, treating them with equality as if they were sons.
The one loyal supporter of the king is the Earl of Gloucester, who ends up getting his eye gouged out while being tortured for trying to protect the failing king from the girls gone wild. Charles Shaw Robinson plays the elderly Gloucester with dignity and humility even though Gloucester is no saint. He does have an illegitimate son Edmund, a clever and scheming young man who woos each of the scheming sisters and played with gallows humor by Dan Clegg. Clegg seems to have made romantic comedy and farce his strong point up until this. It was like seeing Kevin Kline gone wrong, which would be a compelling change. Clowns make good villains under the right direction and this twist looks promising.
The eldest daughter Goneril’s husband, like the loyal and tragic Gloucester, is also one of the more humble gentlemen and loyal to his father-in-law the king. He too gets treated as a fool by Goneril, once she comes into power and property. Mr. Goneril is the Duke of Albany, played with quiet dignity by Sam Misner. Arwen Anderson as the icy Viking daughter Goneril earns one of the only, if the only, appropriately funny moments in the production when Goneril indulges in some girly gushing over a suitor. The affectionate pair get interrupted by another man, whom the audience suddenly realizes is her husband and not the one she is ga-ga about.
Cal Shakes’ ‘King Lear’ runs to October 11, 2015. Tickets are limited and range from $15 to $84 for single tickets. Many discounts are available. Even the back row in this stunning theater offers good sight and sound, the back rows even offering first class leg room while the pricier seats have coach. For more information: Cal Shakes