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It is an interesting new spin on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to look at the downfall of this unwise king from the lens of Alzheimer’s Disease. That is what director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott does in the production now in repertory at A Noise Within. It turns the focus almost exclusively on Lear, and allows for his admittedly conniving daughters to seem legitimate in their frustrations and outrage with him (at least at first). As someone who has watched a parent dissolve into this dread disease, I can say that the concept makes for interesting conversation.
However, when taken as a whole, to dismiss his behavior as the result of this condition is to negate much of the rest of what Shakespeare has to say about familial love, envy, and lust for power. It could (though actually does not) make a uniquely wrenching star turn for Geoff Elliott in the title role, but at what cost? It is too easy on Lear, for one thing, and twists the focus away from other important themes.
Essentially, Lear is a foolish man. Having ruled his country with intensely loyal people around him, he is used to expecting richly voiced praise. When he insists his daughters say how much they love him, he gets two fulsome answers and one honest, practical one, and turns on this last as a sign of disrespect. Thus, he hands over power to the two women who have his interests least at heart, and their own greed at the fore. He becomes an inconvenience and they whittle away at his dignity and even ability to defend himself until there is nothing left. Madness, thus, becomes a thing of circumstance, playing on a weak mind but not on a disabled one, as one can tell when he comes to himself toward the play’s end.
In the ANW production this last thing is made tricky by the disease itself – one which is emphasized over and over by projections of MRIs of slices of the brain which add color to the intentionally bleak set. When you descend into Alzheimers you forget who you are. No coming back from that.
Still, the larger loss is to the importance of and subtext about the moral decay present in daughters Goneril and Regan, and in the villainous Edmund, who determinedly destroys his legitimate brother Edgar and his father, the Earl of Gloucester. It also makes the dogged, sacrificial devotion to Lear by the banished Earl of Kent make less sense, and it makes the king’s Fool occasionally rather superfluous.
Finally, this interpretation leaves Elliott’s Lear without much room to expand. By making him significantly altered even at the start, he blossoms into what becomes (in this interpretation) an unreasoning fury so early that the rest of his long journey becomes a certain amount of emotional station-keeping. Still, as expected, Elliot uses Shakespearean language as if it was his own, and consistently stays true to the concept of this particular form of human disintegration.
Indeed, the cast itself is splendid. Trisha Miller and Arie Thompson advance the two older sisters from a radiation of privilege and power to a sense of self-focused obsessive, destructive behavior. In this they are matched by Jeremy Rabb as Regan’s noble, but easily vicious husband, while Christopher Franciosa provides an increasingly empowered foil for Goneril as her equally high ranking spouse. Freddy Douglass radiates evil in every tone as the deadly Edmund, and Rafael Goldstein handles desperation well as the maligned Edgar.
Apollo Dukakis gives the Earl of Gloucester some of what one hopes to see in a Lear: a happiness born of power and authority which dissolves thanks to his undeservedly horrifying fate. Perhaps most memorable, in this production, is Kasey Mahaffy’s wry, tuneful and audacious Fool – whom Rodriguez-Elliott has given a most spectacularly apt exit.
Fred Kinney’s bleak but extremely adaptable set design underscores the militaristic nature of the piece, which has been reset as if in the mid-20th century. Angela Balogh Calin does her best work in designing the dresses worn by the royal women, while Robert Oriol’s music sets the sense of doom throughout the piece.
In short, this is a good production of “King Lear,” except that in one important way, it isn’t. All the parts are there, but in service to a somewhat skewed interpretation which denies the larger play much of its power. “King Lear” plays in repertory with “Ah, Wilderness” and the soon-to-open “Man of La Mancha”.
What: “King Lear” When: in repertory through May 6, 7:30 p.m. April 13 and May 4; 8 p.m. April 8, 14, 23 and May 5; 2 p.m. matinees April 8, 23, and May 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: from $44, $20 student rush Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.anoisewithin.org