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

Coming back to `Lear’

Great actors wait for it — that defining moment when, as actors and as men, they are seasoned enough to tackle one of theater’s biggest mountains: the title role of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Jeffrey DeMunn scaled that peak, but there was a slight hitch: He was only 26 years old playing an 80-plus-year-old man.

“We had lost our Lear toward the end of the run, and I was in the cast as Edmund,” DeMunn says. “I was picked to fill in.”

Now, 34 years later, DeMunn is taking another crack at it. He’s playing Lear in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production opening Sept. 22 in Orinda.

DeMunn is a familiar face from TV (“Law & Order”) and movies (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), but this is his Bay Area theater debut.

He got the gig when director Lisa Peterson did a reading with him and pulled him aside to talk about the possibility of Lear.

“I had been offered the chance to do Lear a couple of years ago, and I wasn’t quite ready,” DeMunn says. “Then this opportunity came along, and I wondered: How many times are they going to ask?”

So here he is about to essay one of the most extraordinary, most difficult roles in the theater.
For the last six months or so, DeMunn has been spending time with the script, thinking about it and letting it settle into his brain. His take on Lear, he says, is fairly simple.

“Lear is a child. He hasn’t grown up,” DeMunn says. “Everyone has been telling him how great he was his whole life because everyone knew he would one day be king. He hasn’t thought about a lot of things. He hasn’t taken in other human beings, hasn’t seen other humans — only himself. Everyone’s in his movie.”

For DeMunn the play is all about a man finally waking up to the world after having ignored (or been sheltered) from it all his life.

“Lear is like Achilles in `The Iliad’ in that he’s growing up,” DeMunn says. “This is the process of a man over a long stretch of battle growing up.”

King Lear continues through Oct. 14 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel, Orinda. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Sundays (plus 2 p.m. Sept. 29). Tickets are $32 to $60. Call 510-548-9666 or visit