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You’ll decide how you feel about Robert Falls’ vulgar, vicious King Lear in the first few seconds, likely as not, and where you’ll come down may depend on whether you’re the sort to turn up your nose as a pair of noblemen stroll into the palace jakes and commence to take a whiz at a wall lined with grimy urinals.
The action moves quickly to a rowdy banquet in the adjacent palace ballroom—which I’m pretty sure makes Falls’ coarsely celebratory opening sequence a deliberate shoutout to Ian McKellen’s scorching big-screen take on Richard III, which opened at a similar party and moved right through to a similar potty, mid-“winter of our discontent.”
It’s grotesquely funny, Falls’ little inverted tribute, and it’s apt, too: Both updates have their downright brutal moments, and both move their stories’ action to a war-torn 20th-century milieu, the better to batter audiences with ugly observations about just how much we haven’t evolved in the 400 years since the ink dried on Shakespeare’s pages.
So forget the Lear you know, with its tidily divided camps of good- and bad-seed offspring. Impatient with productions that serve up a tender, virtuous Cordelia to be victimized by her monstrous older sisters and her impetuous, imperious old dad, Falls decided to locate his version in strife-torn ’90s Yugoslavia, and he set out to showcase the failings in every last character.
And boy, does he bring that notion home. Noble Gloucester (a superb Edward Gero), manipulated by his ambitious bastard son, eventually blinded by the power-mad Cornwall? He’s a sot who smashes a booze bottle over his own head in that opening riot, and his early praise of base-born Edmund is the lecherous, look-what-I-sired boast of a rutting dog, not the commendation of a sober-minded former philanderer for a son who’s proved himself despite disadvantage.
Meanwhile Edgar, the legitimate son who’s in line for Gloucester’s title, publicly indulges a drug habit and a propensity for loud fashion. You’re tempted to sympathize, at least for a while, with the competent, charismatic Edmund, especially given the slyly funny read Jonno Roberts gives the character.
The aging Lear’s an egomaniac, and a lecher, and as characterized by an intense and fearsome Stacy Keach, he’s more than a bit of a bully. His court is a cult of personality, and his vices, predictably, have trickled down until the whole country is rotting outward from the core.
Even poor Cordelia (Laura Odeh) gets the fisheye: Her stinginess with praise for her father—the shortcoming that gets her cut out of the power-sharing when Lear divvies up his kingdom, there at the start—comes off not so much as an admirable disinclination to flattery as the prim, pious rectitude of a daughter who’s none too sure the paterfamilias deserves to have his praises sung in public. Not, given the old goat’s behavior, that you’d blame her.
In fact there’s not anyone to really like here, except maybe the astonishing corps of actors who keep throwing themselves—metaphorically and bodily—at the excesses Falls has dreamed up. Kim Martin-Cotten’s throaty, voluptuous Goneril, being serviced on that sofa by her hilarious hip-hop clown of a steward (Dieterich Gray); Chris Genebach’s twitchy Cornwall, threatening Steve Pickering’s Earl of Kent with a fate rather more gruesome (and final) than the stocks the text specifies; that raucous opening orgy, with the ensemble tossing off more revealing bits of stage business in one scene than most entire productions can muster—I’ve never been quite so fascinated or so energized by such a loathsome assemblage of drunkards, schemers, connivers, and adulterers. It’s disgusting and dazzling, and dear God the momentum: This Lear moves like a juggernaut, with picture after gruesome stage picture piling up until the stage groans under the weight of a nation’s wreckage.
The capstone is a battle scene most directors would stage the usual way, with explosions and smoke and a troop or two of gun-waving soldiers dashing about. These scenes are the biggest challenge for anybody producing Shakespeare’s martial plays—and often one of the biggest yawns, all stamping feet and halfhearted stage combat. Not here. Falls keeps the battle and its noises offstage, showcasing instead the cleanup, the casualties and the “collateral damage”: white-bandaged corpses, dragged onstage in ones and then twos, piling up until the import of what’s happening just beyond the horizon begins to be driven home. And that’s when the real horror begins.
Quibbles? Sure. Falls’ aggressive pruning makes his Lear a bleaker text than Shakespeare’s. Cordelia’s chilliness likewise deprives the play of some of its heart—and the black wig and charcoal-gray military togs Ana Kuzmanic chooses for the character’s Act 4 reappearance makes Shakespeare’s most put-upon princess look like an aggrieved Gloria Vanderbilt. There’s an antic dance to cap the king’s maddest mad scene that doesn’t make much sense if you think to wonder why the not-crazy people are joining in. And so on.
But honestly? I just didn’t care. This transgressive, despairing Lear, first staged at Falls’ Chicago homebase in 2006, was conceived just as our nation was coming seriously to grips with the realization that it had stampeded headlong into a grotesque war that was turning us all, in effect, into butchers. We’ve turned a corner—we hope—but we’ve hardly escaped the stain. To watch another nation, another set of butchers, go roaring heedlessly through their own rageful bad decisions and onward into hell was shocking, sobering, and somehow cleansing, and I left Harman Hall after three hours trembling from the shame and the thrill of it.