It was the tweet heard round the Whole Foods–shopping world: On July 28, after watching John Lithgow perform as King Lear in Central Park, This American Life host Ira Glass pulled the trigger. “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”
Along with the predictable finger-wagging came a nourishing debate over whether relatability is a meaningful yardstick: Certainly it’s not a word that expresses why we revere Mozart or Kubrick or Rushdie. But you can see where Glass was coming from, at least vis-à-vis Lear. It isn’t merely the cruelest and most exhausting tragedy in the folio; it’s also one of the hardest to follow. Lear—whose fast-decaying mental state, even more than the gruesome melees that pepper the narrative, is the piece’s central horror—appears to be insane when it begins, demanding from each of his daughters an ostentatious declaration of her love, for which he dispenses payment to those who comply.
Lear is also a passive character, wandering literally in the wilderness of his own drama while the plot grinds along elsewhere. His defining action is to quit. And that resignation may yet be a heroic act, because the story that follows it punishes the good at least as harshly as the wicked, suggesting a futility of human action.
Well. The Globe Theatre production kicking off its U.S. tour with a two-week stay at the Folger gets around this accessibility problem by staffing the show with eight energetic, attractive ringers and transforming this tragedy into a party. During the “parish notices” that precede the show proper, the smoothly Scot-accented John Stahl—in the moment before he puts on the role of the noble Earl of Gloucester—urges we happy few rubberneckers to “enjoy yourselves!”, a curious way to begin this evening of blood and torment and madness.
Attempting to replicate the feel of their home, London’s open-air Globe, the company plays with the house lights up. They bang drums, they blow trumpets and flutes, they squeeze accordions, they strum guitars, they sing, several times, the 17th century poem “Tom O’ Bedlam.” These foot-stomping, all-hands-on-deck musical interludes aren’t unique—lots of Shakespeare outfits descended from the Globe do them—but they do make his thing feel more like an Arcade Fire concert than an attendance-mandatory class assignment.
Joseph Marcell plays the unraveling king. A Shakespearean actor of long experience, he probably paid for his house with his service as Geoffrey, white-gloved English butler to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air on NBC between 1990 and 1996. His brown, watery eyes and wavering voice invite our pity at his dissolution, and when he carries Cordelia’s corpse out at the climax, it really looks like his knees might buckle. The most powerful moment, however, isn’t when he holds Cordelia—the loyal, modest daughter he spurned—to his chest and dies, but when Marcell and Bethan Cullinane (who plays Cordelia as well as the Fool, Lear’s companion in the wilderness) slowly stand back up and embrace one another to dance.
Director Bill Buckhurst frames the show as an ensemble piece rather than a venerable showcase for a single, aging actor. He seems at least as invested in Edmund, Goneril, Cornwall, and Regan’s skullduggery, and in Edgar and Gloucester’s battered nobility, as in the spectacle of the king’s disintegration. He also brings this thing in a few minutes shy of three hours including intermission. Not short, but not long, for Lear. There’s an ingenious compression in this telling, as when a face-off between two drummers stands in for a battle scene. But the representational sword fights choreographed by fight director Kevin McCurdy have a convincing speed and menace, too. (No one bothers with stage blood, a nonessential that might have complicated the rapid-fire role-switching.)
Mercifully, there is comedy. When the time comes to take poor Gloucester’s eyes—a scene often regarded as too vulgar to be staged at all—Cornwall (Alex Mugnaioni, who also plays the virtuous Edgar) tosses each rubber orb up into the balcony over the stage, where at least one of them, on press night, struck the back wall with a satisfying thunk. In another scene, Goneril addresses Edmund and Oswald, while a single actor—the square-jawed Daniel Pirrie—oscillates between the two roles, running from one side of the stage to the other and donning and doffing a cap to indicate who’s who. You’re grateful for the laugh. At the end of the evening, it feels like we’ve all wrestled with an insoluble text and not been utterly worn down by it. These eight actors are kind to let us have the delusion that their triumph is ours, too.
Spark, from the prolific, Obie-winning playwright Caridad Svich, is also about three sisters haunted by a lousy father. The Glimord Girls’ dad’s abdication was less formal than Lear’s: He just took off 18 years ago, though they figure he’s still alive somewhere. Their mother’s death was the more damaging blow. The play opens with eldest sister Evelyn (Sarah Kathryn Strasser) and youngest Ali (Alison Donnelly), an aspiring boxer, preparing a homecoming party for laconic middle sister Lexie (Anna Lathrop), an Army veteran returning from a combat deployment overseas. Lexie is uncomfortable being fussed over, which Evelyn takes as ingratitude. She and Evelyn each believe they’re the one who has made the self-effacing sacrifice for the preservation of their family—Lexie by enlisting so her sisters might be due benefits in the event of her death; Evelyn by passing up college to take care of Ali after their mother died. Now she keeps the house up with odd jobs, sewing clothes and baking muffins for their more prosperous, country club-belonging neighbors, the ones who’ll never be called to fight their country’s wars.
Svich is careful to keep the show’s polemical payload confined to these asides. But she leaves in fatuous aphorisms like, “That’s the thing about mourning. You can’t buy it or sell it. It just is.” What?
Carlos Saldana manages to bring a wrinkle of mischief to a role he’s previously played in Theater J’s After the Revolution and other shows, as a saintly and undemanding love interest who just won’t be dissuaded by Evelyn’s years of ambivalence toward him.
Long stretches of the play are devoted to two of the three Glimord sisters sitting around wondering where the third one is. There’s an uncomfortable whiff of Bagger Vance–style magical negroism when Addison Switzer arrives late as another veteran living in this very small town whom no one has ever met or mentioned before, who shows up just when Lexie really needs to split a case of beer with someone who knows what it’s like to have been in The Shit. Is he meant to be a ghost?
Deborah Wheatley and Libby Stadtad’s handsome set—dilapidated Glimord front porch stage-right; a picnic table and a fence stage-left—is just a little too idyllic and inviting, while Martha Mountain’s blue lighting scheme suggests that dawn is never far away in this house full of sleepless women.
The production team goes to considerable trouble to put a rainstorm on stage, a gimmick that isn’t even necessary in Singin’ in the Rain. Lear conjures a more illusory and yet more convincing storm for the mad king to rail against just by shaking a sheet and beating a drum. You can always get away with telling the audience what they should be picturing when you’re faking a storm, because 100 times out of 100 in this life, someone around you will greet a rainstorm by remarking out loud that it’s raining. That’s a meteorological fact.
King Lear at Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. NE. $60 to $85. Spark at Anacostia Playhouse , 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. $17 to $35.