In a storefront theatre in the Bixby Knolls neighborhood, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company is offering King Lear. The production has virtues that make it worth seeing.
Director Helen Borgers (the company’s Artistic Director) keeps the story moving briskly. And having spent years navigating the tiny, narrow black box, she and set designer Tim Leach manage to shoehorn in three castles, a wide empty heath and the cliffs of Dover, a battle, and countless entrances and exits.
Costumer Dana Leach, assisted by Irish Pellas (and, no doubt, a crew of elves) creates a lush Renaissance look while sharply identifying each of the many characters. Brandon Cutts’ lighting and Edmund Velasco’s music lead us through the tale’s sharp changes of scene and mood.
All these help greatly in making clear the tangled, swift-running tragedy. But finally, of course, it’s up to the actors to bring us into the story and keep us there — using language that’s 400 years old, is poetic, and has ideas in it like “filial piety” that most folks today have to google.
There’s the rub. Not all the actors have mastered Shakespeare’s language enough to keep his meanings clear. Chief among those who have, Andrew Huber as the villainous Edmund lays out his every snare before us lucidly, leaving us laughing at his snarky pride. Cody Bushee is also clear — solid gold as the the King of France, glittering false mica as the simpering Oswald.
All three of Lear’s daughters — arguably the characters whose thoughts and feelings we most need to know — are performed with bold confidence by actors fully immersed in what they’re saying and why they’re saying it. Fiona Austin (as Regan) and Dana Coyle (as Goneril), take us clearly through their devolution from hypocrisy to open viciousness– yet also let us see the emotional fragility each tries to hide. As honest Cordelia, Lauren Velasco takes us into her mind and heart at once and keeps us there, as she shifts from a cruelly rejected girl to the queen of France commanding her army, then to an imprisoned daughter whose only care is love.
As Lear’s faithful fool, Randi Tahara deftly uses verbal and physical comedy to deliver the wise wit and the King sorely needs, and only once or twice does she let herself be rushed into muddle. Mike Austin (as Kent/ Caius) likewise keeps his long-suffering loyalty clear, losing us only when he hurries. Mark Motyl delivers a Gloucester we can almost always understand and feel with, his accent subtly marking him as an ethical stranger in a world of egotism and self-seeking.
The tragedy of Lear is that he is not equal to his duties. And the sad part of this production is that Carl Wawrina as Lear is not equal to his, or was not on opening night. Moments into the first scene, he was shouting at full volume — which made him incomprehensible and left him nowhere to go emotionally for the rest of the play. Except for a lovely clear speech on the heath, when the King at last recognized the plight of the poor and his failure to serve them, our Lear was either mumbling or shouting, often unintelligibly. Alas, by the play’s peak, when the distraught father carried dead Cordelia in his arms, crying “Howl! Howl! Howl!” — it was just Lear shouting again.
This would seem to be a wound from which the play cannot recover. But while it bears his name, King Lear is really more about the people around him — his false and true daughters, the false and true courtiers — than about the King himself. And on the shoulders of its villains and one true daughter, this production carries it off.
King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Helen Borgers.
Presented by the Long Beach Shakespeare Company.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, through June 21.
At the Richard Goad Theatre, 4250 Atlantic Blvd., Long Beach.
Tickets: <www/LBShakespeare.org> or (562) 997-1494.