Review: `King Lear’

Opened Sept. 22, 2007 at the Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.

Cal Shakes ends season with royally pleasing Lear
three stars Moving, powerful

Perhaps the Fool said it best: “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen.”

Saturday night was indeed cold as California Shakespeare Theater opened the final show of its summer season, King Lear. And sure enough, there was no shortage of fools or madmen in director Lisa Peterson’s production.

The epic grandeur you expect from Lear is here, especially when Alexander V. Nichols’ lights hit the upright metal girders and giant, almost fully rounded arch of Rachel Hauck’s industrial set.

This is not a fanciful production. The rough, scrap yard look evokes a tough world of economic struggle and hardship. Meg Neville’s costumes evoke the glamour of the late ’20s and early ’30s for the royals and the misery of the Depression for everyone else.

Peterson creates some striking stage pictures: a disguised Edgar (Erik Lochtefeld) emerging from a trapdoor, nude and raving as Tom of Bedlam; Edgar’s return to exact vengeance on his bastard brother, with Edgar standing like a superhero in the arch, backlit with stage smoke swirling around his upraised sword; the stormy night that tests Lear’s sanity with great sheets of metal creating thunderous rolls and the ensemble banging on metal barrels and pouring out buckets of water.

And then there’s the gore. Peterson is no-nonsense about the blood. King Lear is a violent upheaval of a play — emotionally and physically — and there’s blood where there should be blood.

Most memorable is the famous eye-gouging scene as the Duke of Cornwall (L. Peter Callender) uses a corkscrew to blind the Earl of Gloucester (James Carpenter). The first eye ends up as so much bloody goo on the stage floor — much to the horrified delight of the audience.

And when Oswald (a crisp, funny Liam Vincent), a snooty steward, gets knocked upside the head, the blood sprays like a scene from a splatter movie.

Peterson goes for that kind of clarity and frankness in the performances as well and mostly succeeds.

Jeffrey DeMunn as Lear bears much of this massive play’s weight on his capable shoulders. If anything, DeMunn’s Lear doesn’t seem quite old or fragile enough, but the actor makes a strong emotional connection with this tormented man whose pampered, self-centered life as a king has left him unable to navigate the real world or real feelings.

The quick-to-anger scenes — as when Lear curses his eldest daughter, Goneril (Delia MacDougall) with sterility or when he calls Goneril and middle daughter Regan (Julie Eccles) “unnatural hags” — have startling ferocity.

And Lear’s heartbreaking sobs as he carries the corpse of youngest daughter Cordelia (Sarah Nealis) ring through the Bruns Amphitheater and the Orinda hills.

The cast is full of dignified, straight-ahead performances — Andy Murray’s Kent, Lochtefeld’s Edgar, Anthony Fusco’s warm, wise Fool — but one performance stands apart from the others.

Ravi Kapoor as Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, is the play’s one traditional scheming, egotistical bad guy, and he feels, with his fedora, orange shirt and tie, like he’s visiting from a production of Guys and Dolls. His early monologue about destroying his brother, is extremely loud and delivered in a bizarre New York tough-guy accent.

It’s an off note in an otherwise sturdy production that proves, in its three hours, to be moving and powerful — a suitably affecting end to yet another stellar Cal Shakes season.

For information about King Lear, visit

One thought on “Review: `King Lear’

  1. I found this production of King Lear rather bland and disjointed. The 20s-30s era costumes were as anomalous as the barren stage decorated with oil cans. Poor Tom pops out of a grate on the floor. The canned music is bleak and ugly. King Lear never seems royal. He is crazy from the beginning, and towards the end becomes clownish. Ravi Kapoor was excellent as the bastard son, in spite of the Guys and Dolls outfit.

    The performance we went to was rained out in the second half, and CalShakes did not offer other tickets to compensate. They did say we could stand in the back at one of the remaining performances to see the final act. The box office considers any performance that starts, regardless of whether it ends, a “completed performance”. So if you go and spend $90-100 on a pair of tix, be sure to check the weather forecast beforehand.

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