King Lear at the Wyly Theatre feels more familiar than the story ever has before. The collaborative production between Dallas Theater Center and Trinity Repertory Company (they debuted this production in Providence,RI in 2012) focuses Shakespeare's great tragedy on themes of dementia and familial obligation.
Throughout the four-year Shakespeare cycle, Kevin Moriarty has consistently mined Shakespeare's great works for themes more recognizable to modern audiences. His renditions garner varied critical reactions, as his Lear is sure to, but his brand of theater keeps the characters delightful and the storytelling clear.
King Lear (Brian McEleney) is growing old and he plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. The play opens in a sparse palace - one throne, one chandelier and towering walls. Michael McGarty's set mirrors Lear's mind, which devolves from a throne-centric power-mongerer into a state of disarray.
Besides kind-hearted Cordelia (a warm performance by Abbey Siegworth), the sisters are far more interested in the inheritance than the love of daddy Lear. Christie Vela and Angela Brazil play the double-crossing elder daughters. Vela is a stern, severe Goneril and Brazil, a more timid but equally uncaring Regan.
When Goneril and Regan lie through their teeth to secure their birthright, Cordelia refuses to declare the same unreserved love and Lear banishes her only to find himself tossed out by the elder two. The king's truer friends are soon revealed in the Earl of Kent (Hassan El-Amin) and the Earl of Gloucester (here cast as a woman, Phyllis Kay). When Cordelia returns home to find her father outcast from her sisters' houses and on the verge of insanity, the story unravels and ends in bitter tragedy.
From the start, McEleney's hobbling Lear is a bit off-kilter and goofy. He shuffles around the stage yelling his embittered curses, with more whimsy than malice. But as Lear's mind tangles and his suffering increases, McEleney's performance will hit home for anyone who has watched a father or grandfather struggle with dementia. When Lear needs his daughters most, he's alienated the only one who would've taken care of him. And his final howls will break your heart.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare's more powerful scripts, but draws varied interpretations and criticism. Staging the storm on the heath has often been declared impossible - a feat this production manages in a brilliantly emotive scene. Leo Tolstoy so hated the script that he denounced Shakespeare's artistry.
But Moriarty's modern undertaking, demonstrates the layers of humanity with an unparalleled richness. In this Lear, characters are sharply juxtaposed - Steven Walters' Edgar casts even more shadows on Lee Trull's malfeasant Edmund. And the illogical turns in narrative are given a pathos steeped in realism. This Lear is accessible, but not oversimplified.
King Lear runs through February 17. Tickets can be found online at dallastheatercenter.org or by phone (214) 880-0202.