Monday, May 19, 2008

"King Lear" Post Mortem

"The King is dead; long live the King."

A three-week, nine-show run is hardly enough time to adequately explore the vast yet intimate universe that "King Lear" inhabits. I'm not sure that I'm qualified to make such an exploration. All I can do, with your indulgence, is to offer a few insights into what made my journey through this play one of the more challenging experiences in my theatrical career.

First, a few observations about the production itself. Like most community theater, the technical production was hit-or-miss. The lighting was effective, the sound design engaging and evocative, the costuming adequate. (We all made jokes about the "smocks" all the men were wearing; it was like we were back in pre-school on the way to finger painting.) The group, Cedar Lane Stage, is affiliated with the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church. That means we performed in the main sanctuary of the church: a large box with two of its walls composed of glass panels, some of them tinted. As a result, we never fully went to blackout, which made scene changes difficult. The space also has poor acoustical traits; it's very difficult to find your voice in there. I didn't even bother warming up in the space because it sounded different when the space was empty than it did with audience present.

The direction and cast were very strong. But I wasn't very worried about that going into rehearsals: Shakespeare tends to bring out very talented people. I happened into this show in an unusual way: by email. The director sent me a message 4 days after I finished "An Experiment With an Air Pump" and offered me the role of Gloucester. I took a day and a half to think about it, and when I learned that a few of my friends were in the cast (all of them very talented folk) so that sealed my decision to join the cast.

At the outset, I was a bit concerned that I wasn't old enough to play Gloucester. Being 40 is one thing, but when one of the actors playing your son is four months older than you, steps must be taken. So the director encouraged me to grow a beard. It helped a bit, a bit more when it was whitened, but I never got the sense that my "look" was convincing. As a friend who came to see the show said: "You're too young to play Gloucester; the good news is you get to try again!" Maybe in a decade or so...

Of course the divorce hung over me in this production. There were too many parallels between Gloucester's journey through the play and my own journey at the moment. The only difference between G and me is that his abuse is mainly physical while mine is mainly mental. But, surprisingly I found, they were both rooted in the same emotion: shame. Gloucester's shame is three-fold: he's failed his king/country by not preventing Lear from falling into the arrogant trap he sets for himself, he's failed his legitimate son by sending him fleeing into the wilderness for his life, and he's failed his bastard son by treating him so terribly that his son betrays him. All of these failures become tangled in Gloucester's mind and vex him terribly; his torture at the end of Act 3 seems almost trivial were it not for the blood. Strangely, when I played the subsequent scenes I didn't feel that Gloucester hated Edmund; he failed him. If Gloucester had only shown him a bit more attention and a bit more love, perhaps all of this could have been avoided.

I don't think I need to tell you how many nights I have had those same thoughts about the breakup of my marriage. Hey, at least I didn't get my eyes removed!

There's really only one thing left to discuss and that is Act 4, scene 6, when Gloucester and Lear are reunited. It was an emotionally draining scene, one that was difficult to get into until we stumbled upon something remarkable during rehearsal. Lou Pangaro, the actor playing Lear and a dear friend, decided to wear a pair of boots to rehearsal one night for this scene. During the scene, Lear and Gloucester joke around with each other, allowing the audience to glimpse what their relationship must have been like long ago. And then the madness takes hold of Lear again:

KING LEAR

... Get thee glass eyes;
And like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. Now, now, now, now:
Pull off my boots: harder, harder: so.

EDGAR

O, matter and impertinency mix'd! Reason in madness!

KING LEAR

If thou wilt weep my fortunes, take my eyes.
I know thee well enough; thy name is Gloucester:
Thou must be patient; we came crying hither:
Thou know'st, the first time that we smell the air,
We wawl and cry.


During one rehearsal, Lou pulled me down to the ground on his line "Now, now, now, now: Pull off my boots: harder, harder: so." He caught me completely by surprise, but I got down on my knees and groped around for his feet. I caught one of the boots and pulled -- and it came off in my hands, empty. That simple act triggered such a physical and emotional response that I bawled for twenty minutes. There, in Gloucester's hands, was the perfect metaphor for all that he had gone through. And when Lear said "Thou must be patient", I cried even harder. Because Gloucester has had enough of patience! He's spent this act trying to kill himself and he can't even do that right! At the end of this scene he wishes to be insane just like his master:


GLOUCESTER

The king is mad: how stiff is my vile sense,
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract:
So should my thoughts be sever'd from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves.


But his lot is that he gets to feel everything that happens to him, and understand it all. Lear, by comparison, almost gets off Scot free. Lear's choices lead him to insanity, while Gloucester's lead to clarity.

The show ended last Sunday, and it took me until Thursday to get back to any semblance of normal. I'm taking some time off theater for a while, I think I've given my all for the moment. ;-)

For a more prosaic account of the show, I refer to you David Gorsline's excellent post here.

4 comments:

TeacherRefPoet said...

Wow. What an experience. I wish I had been there to see it.

tommyspoon said...

Indeed it was, TRP. Sorry you couldn't have been there. Even sorrier we couldn't have taken this show on the road to the 'Couv.

lemming said...

Brilliant post, Tommy. Puts me right back into Rambuss' Shakespeare class and I can truly offer no higher compliment than that when it comes to the Bard.

Nguyen Duc said...

Oh, Tom, that is beautiful.
Forum Link Building company Reviewseo forum