Great Lakes 'King Lear' proves Bard tragedy hasn't -- and will never-- age

CLEVELAND -- It's one of the most touching and heartbreaking scenes in Great Lakes Theatre's brilliantly-executed, modern day-set production of Shakespeare's masterpiece "King Lear," on stage through Nov. 1.

A once vibrant, loving ruler is slowly wheeled on stage on a hospital bed, his hair as white as death, his eyes closed. He's seemingly unresponsive, clad in a hospital gown with an IV hook-up next to his bed.

His once favorite daughter appears. Lear slowly gets up, betraying a confused but searching facial expression. He's seen her somewhere, but where? Then it comes to him, as he says her name.

It's an all-too-familiar scene for too many people, but it didn't have to come to this.

Lear's mental deterioration is surely less caused by the natural aging process than by mistreatment from his self-centered, unappreciative daughters, Goneril and Regan.

Director Joseph Hanreddy, like many directors of productions of Shakespearean plays, has chosen to set this "King Lear" in modern times. And modern day audiences will no doubt connect emotionally with this production, especially that hospital bed scene.

This complex play's 400 years old. But with its focus on themes such as ungrateful, even spiteful adult children -- you know, the haughty kind that have no time for the people who made them, treat them like spoiled, rotten children and don't even visit on Mother's or Father's Day -- it makes all the sense in the world to set the play in modern times.

Hanreddy does so without specifying a time period or event in history, making the play not only timely but timeless.

Credit must also go to a splendid cast of actors with robust voices who speak the Bard's language clearly and obviously understand what they're saying.

Like any person retiring from his or her occupation, King Lear wants his retirement to be one of peace, orderliness and enjoyment.

But as happens too often with the mistreatment of the elderly, that sense of calm can disintegrate into a nightmare they never envisioned for their "Golden Years."

Nature is a destructive force in "King Lear" -- not only Mother Nature, but human nature. In this focused production, Hanreddy and his technical team have found vivid, visual ways to illustrate the collapse of calm and order into chaos.

The play begins in a compact, neat office, complete with stately columns, a desk, a comfortable, luxurious chair and a round, multi-paned window set into a concrete wall. One can't see outside the windows; this is Lear's special, cozy, neat, sheltered place.

But after his youngest, most truthful and faithful daughter, Cordelia, commits the "sin" of telling her father she will love her future husband as much as him, that orderly space begins to crumble.

Those aforementioned columns come crashing down, garbage such as Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes (how's that for adding a modern flavor to the production) are strewn about and windows break.

The disintegration of the neat and orderly set exposes the ruler to an unforgiving outside world, rendered by scenic designer Linda Buchanan as a threateningly dark blue, seemingly endless expanse, which turns gray and black during other moments.

Add shadows as well as Rob Milburn's and Michael Bodeen's foreboding sound effects, and the production takes on a nightmarish quality.

The transformation mirrors that of Lear's mental state.
In the beginning the king (a phenomenal, nuanced Aled Daives) confidently enters the office, clad in military garb, conveying contentment, authority and polish.

But as the play progresses and his daughters mistreat him, the honorable outfit disappears. His costumes are less becoming of a king, until he's basically wearing rags and a foolish looking hat covered by vegetation. Lear's being stripped of his dignity and authority, revealing his vulnerable, naked state for all to see.

As played by Aled Davies, Lear's eyes widen in confusion and helplessness. He convincingly bellows wildly in pain, spreading his arms out wide and, choking back tears, pleading to anyone who'll listen to restore his dignity. Soon, he's unsteady on his feet, a beaten, abused elderly man.

Cordelia would be the first person to make her father feel wanted, but proves no match for Goneril, Regan and their accomplices.

As embodied tenderly and sensitively by Cassandra Bissell, Cordelia appears almost ethereal in a white outfit, suggesting a sweet angel too good for a world filled with the likes of Goneril and Regan.

In the opening scene, director Hanreddy's smart staging includes positioning Cordelia apart from Goneril and Regan, reinforcing the differences between her and her siblings and Cordelia's outsider status.

Bissel's Cordelia is contrasted sharply by Laura Perrotta's shrewd, sly Goneril, who speaks in a sharp, cold, calculating uncaring voice.

Robyn Cohen creates a cold, self-centered Regan but not as sly as Goneril.

As Edmund, the bastard son of the elderly Earl of Gloucester, Jonathan Dyrud's voice drips convincing bitterness, frustration, exasperation and anger as he speaks to us in soliloquy about how he's not considered as worthy as his legitimate brother, Edgar. Dyrud's performance is forceful without appearing forced.

Tom Ford demonstrates equal ease with his seemingly endless arsenal of comic antics and expressions as Lear's Fool.
Ford's a master with deadpan expressions and drunken silliness.
His comedic performance is accentuated with a clown nose, make up and hat. But Ford's fool also betrays a sad countenance as Lear suffers, demonstrating his devotion to Lear.

The fool, aside from serving as a proverbial shoulder upon which Lear can lean, provides comic relief in a relentless, brutally honest play. But he's, ironically, among the play's smartest characters, as is true with Shakespeare's fools in the Bard's other plays. He speaks truths that others don't.

Of course, so much of what "King Lear" covers is ironic. For example, adults behaving like children, treating like spoiled kids those who gave them life, reared them. sheltered and fed them and are supposedly wiser.

They're people like the devoted Gloucester (a trusting, at first happy. J. Todd Adams) who has no reason to believe his son Edmund, while illegitimate, is deceiving him. After learning this, Adams nicely capture's his character's vulnerability. The excruciating, agony-filled bellow he lets out during the play's most gruesome scene is so convincing, we believe the brutal act's really happening.

Paul Miller's harsh, creative lighting design accentuates such cruel treatment.

In this production, Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, looks like he's been beaten to a pulp in his disguise as "Poor Tom." His soot-stained body, wavy hair, animalistic manner suggests a wild beggar you wouldn't want to encounter at night. Under that primitive state is a devoted, but obviously emotionally hurting son who's been falsely accused of plotting against his father.

"King Lear's" ultimately a play that can open our eyes to elder abuse and make us rethink how we treat our aging parents.
And Great Lakes' vivid, shudder-inducing production can make us want to make every day Mother's Day and Father's Day,

IF YOU GO
WHAT: "King Lear"
WHEN: Through Nov. 1
WHERE: Hanna Theatre, 2067 E 14th St, Cleveland,
For ticket information, call 216-241-6000.