King Lear, Cal Shakes
From left, Anthony Heald, Arwen Anderson and El Beh in California Shakespeare Theater’s "King Lear"
© CalShakes. Photo by Kevin Berne

King Lear, Cal Shakes

A competent, if grim, presentation of Shakespeare's great tragedy features Anthony Heald in the title role.

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amanda Dehnert

California Shakespeare Theater, Bruns Memorial Amphiteater, Orinda, Calif.

Sept. 16-Oct. 11, 2015

Someone with nothing better to do once counted how many times the word “nothing” appears in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Having better things to do I have forgotten the total but it was a lot. All stemming from the protagonist’s early “Nothing can come of nothing,” in reply to his beloved daughter Cordelia’s reluctance to heap on the filial praise expressed by her false sisters.

And Lear himself, mad, dispossessed, yet “every inch a king,” comes to nothing in the end, despite his sanguine beginnings as a monarch who steps down in favor of the children he counted on to support his old age. It’s a sad story, one that may painfully resonate with contemporary audiences potentially facing a dotage spent in one of the nursing homes our society has built into a huge enterprise for warehousing the elderly.

Another painful contemporary touch is found in the seemingly mad Tom (really the loyal retainer Edgar in disguise}. “Poor Tom” (Rafael Jordan) is cold, hungry, homeless and, in a new-found empathy, the dethroned monarch, half-mad himself, muses that the state should have a better care of such folk. The homeless? With the hordes sweeping out of Syria and the pitiful human detritus on our own city streets, how much more today can you get?

This is not a political tract, however, but a review of a play, one of Shakespeare’s finest. A true tragedy, the action springs from Lear’s fatal flaw of vanity — he would rather be flattered than told the plain truth — and the subsequent hubris that brings him low even as he continues his high style of living.

Amanda Dehnert’s production at CalShakes is bleak. Daniel Ostling’s scene design is comprised of a series of moving, interlocking cages that serve as rooms, huts, prisons in Act I and a bare stage only adorned only with enormous near-blinding klieg lights in Act II. Costume designer Melissa Torchia’s palette is black and gray, with the occasional touch of white — in Kent’s fur cape, the Fool’s skirt and Lear’s hospital robe/shroud at the end.

Dehnert’s “Lear” goes by in a whirlwind of betrayals, murders and hypocrisy. Some judicious cuts must have been made but the surgery is so seamless it doesn’t show. One strange touch is having the banished Cordelia (Kjerstine Rose Anderson) doubling in the role of Lear’s Fool. Although Anderson is very good in both parts, it is a little confusing at first.

Also excellent are Arwen Anderson as the cold, calculating daughter Goneril and El Beh as the more hot-blooded but no less cruel Regan. Dan Clegg is smarmy and scheming in the role of the bastard Edmund, who plays his brother against his father and the daughters against each other to further his own ends. We’re not sorry when his is added to the (considerable) body count at the end. Dehnert’s handling of those deaths is a little strange and elicited a few giggles from the audience. This is not funny, folks, and better a few should have been omitted (the King of France, Cordelia’s husband, who enters only to silently drop dead at the sight of her body) or committed offstage, as the blinding of Lear’s faithful retainer Gloucester (Charles Shaw Robinson) mercifully was.

The standouts in the large supporting cast were probably the nicest guys in the show to boot. Aldo Billingsley was both regal and funny as the banished adviser Kent, who also disguises himself to serve his wandering lord. And Jordan, as Edmund’s brother Edgar, who, slandered by Edmund, flees his father’s wrath only to return and lead him in his blindness. (Blind Gloucester’s great line, “I stumbled when I saw,” is at the heart of the tale).

And now to Lear himself: Anthony Heald, star of stage, screen and television as well as a stalwart of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. His was a realistic Lear, without bombast or excessive emoting. It brought the old king’s predicament down to earth and helped us relate to his decline. So relaxed in the role was Heald that he positively threw away some of the greatest lines in this, possibly the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. “Ay, every inch a king,” was one I caught — barely. But his madness was believable and his grief at Cordelia’s death genuine.

And, as the good king learned, you really can’t have it all.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco ,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”