There have been countless productions of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece King Lear, since it premiered circa 1606 at London’s Globe Theatre. The Bard reportedly wrote the lead role for his troupe’s top tragedian, Richard Burbage, but since then many stage and screen stalwarts have portrayed the title character, including Laurence Olivier, Paul Scofield, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellan, Al Pacino and but of course, Orson Welles. The first motion picture iteration was lensed by 1909, a 16-minute silent film starring William V. Ranous.
A variety of countries and ethnicities have tackled Lear. The veteran Soviet helmer Grigoriy Kozintsev’s (who co-directed the 1926 adaptation of Gogol’s novel The Overcoat, 1929’s Paris Commune drama The New Babylon and 1964’s Hamlet) final film was a version of Lear made in 1970. In 1974 African American actor James Earl Jones starred in a small screen version that was broadcast by PBS’ Great Performances series. In 2018 the TV movie The Yiddish King Lear was aired, and so on.
So what’s left to say about this oft-produced Shakespearian tragedy?
Joe Morton (King Lear) • Brie Eley (Regan) • Emily Swallow (Goneril). Photos by Jason Williams.
To its credit, the current production on the boards through June 5 at the Brian Goldsmith Theater, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, deconstructs the Bard of Avon’s 400-plus-year-old classic for a 21st century audience. Joe Morton (who starred in John Sayles’ racially conscious 1984 sci fi comedy The Brother from Another Planet as an extraterrestrial in Harlem and on TV’s Scandal series) depicts the title character in this modern dress adaptation helmed by John Gould Rubin. The cast is not only multi-culti (as was the 1974 James Earl Jones production), but is multi-gender too, in that Salvadoran American River Gallo has a double role, portraying the loyal daughter Cordelia and the Fool. According to Performances Magazine, the GLAAD award-winning Gallo, who co-directed/wrote/starred in Ponyboi, is “an out intersex person,” which Planned Parenthood defines, in part, as “an umbrella term that describes bodies that fall outside the strict male/female binary.”
In Rubin’s updated reinvention, social media plays an important role, with screens stage right and left that include images shot live onstage, from selfies to video, with tempestuous footage played during King Lear’s famed storm sequence, etc. Unlike many other Wallis shows there are no elaborate sets on the stage, which primarily consists of several tables, as well as rows of seats behind center stage for theatergoers, something I’ve never seen before at this posh Beverly Hills venue, which bestows a “theater-in-the-round” vibe on the production. I’m tempted to jibe that scenic designer Christopher Barreca had the easiest job in the world, but I imagine there’s more to the set than meets the eye.
As the tragedy’s title indicates, the eponymous Lear is a British monarch. While the trappings of royalty and his dividing up of his realm among his three daughters play important roles in King Lear, Shakespeare’s play is, at heart, as intense a gripping family drama as anything Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams ever penned. It is heartbreaking to see how the sly siblings Regan (Brie Eley) and Goneril (Emily Swallow) pull the wool over their aging father’s eyes, hoodwinking him. Meanwhile, the truth telling Cordelia (Gallo) falls afoul of her father because unlike her/his sisters, he/she refuses to blind him with flattery, triggering a wrathful Lear to bestow her/his allotment of his royal domain upon the scheming, greedy Regan and Goneril.
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King Lear deals with the themes of madness, but a more 21st century understanding of what appears to be happening to His Majesty is dementia, plus given his wild mood swings, Lear may also suffer from bipolar syndrome. Blindness, too, is symbolically dramatized in the two-act play, with the ever-loyal Earl of Gloucester (the three-piece-suit clad Mark Harelik, whose extensive credits include Trumbo and the great FX series Snowfall) having his eyes gouged out as he is doomed to wander the heath. Lear states: “A man can see how the world goes without his eyes,” and R.D. Laing-like, clarity emerges out of insanity. The Bard’s play finally is about loyalty and apprehending the truth.
Rubin deftly directs his ensemble in what is arguably the ultimate dysfunctional family drama, which is played out against a royal background, that adds a historical scope to the personal plot. As the monarch from another planet, the spry Joe Morton belies his age (almost 75), whether crawling about onstage, ascending tabletops or powerfully, poignantly emoting, vocalizing those immortal words about that which is “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” Lear’s battles with Regan and Goneril are far more epic than those fought by Olivia (Kerry Washington) and Rowan Pope on our TV screens for years on Scandal.
Brie Eley (Regan), Rafael Jordan (Edmund). • River Gallo (Cordelia and Fool). • Joe Morton (King Lear) Photos by Jason Williams.
As Regan and Goneril, Eley is slinky in her tight-fitting latex pants and heels, while Swallow is likewise sexy, as they conspire against dear old dad and compete for the sexual attention of Gloucester’s born-out-of-wedlock son Edmund (Rafael Jordan). Harelik, who has trod the boards on Broadway, excels as the steadfast Gloucester who, like Cordelia, remains admirably true blue. In a double role as the King of France and Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar, Zachary Solomon provides some much-needed comic relief.
Clocking in at three hours-plus with one intermission, and given ye olde English spouted onstage, some ticket buyers may find this production to be tedious, hard to sit through and to follow. But the more serious theatergoers among us – dare I say the “Shakespeareans”, we few, we lucky few, we band of Bard fans? – are likely to be enthralled by this 21st century rendition of a 17th century classic about family angst that remains all too relevant, hundreds of years after the greatest playwright of all time dipped his magical quill into immortal ink. The show also provides fortunate Angeleno audiences with yet another opportunity to see the great Joe Morton perform live and in person, since his pre-pandemic one-man show Turn Me Loose about that king of comedy Dick Gregory at the Wallis.
King Lear is being performed Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30 p.m., and Saturdays-Sundays at 2:00 p.m., through June 5 at the Brian Goldsmith Theater, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. For info: https://thewallis.org/; (310)746-4000.
FUN FACT OF THE REVIEW: Of the countless screen versions of King Lear, the most offbeat may be Jean Luc Godard’s 1987 take on the classic, co-starring Woody Allen, Norman Mailer and The Breakfast Club’s Molly Ringwald as Cordelia. I kid thee not! Here’s a clip that’s sure to leave you, shall we say, breathless: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl_wlPhiw90 .