Finally, the Lear nobody’s been waiting for, a Lear for people not in the mood for tragedy, a Lear Light, an economic Lear, cast with just eight actors, who not only portray multiple characters but also sing, dance, wink, and play the accordion, drums and trombone. The most astonishing aspect of the touring King Lear at the Skirball Center through October 12th, which stars Joseph Marcell, best-known as Geoffrey the butler in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” is that it’s a production of Shakespeare’s Globe, the same company that brought Mark Rylance’s brilliant Twelfth Night in a double bill with Richard III to Broadway last season. That Twelfth Night was the best Twelfth Night, and surely one of the best of any Shakespeare production, I’ve ever seen.
I won’t call the Shakespeare Globe’s King Lear the worst I’ve ever seen, for two reasons.
First, the actors are all capable, and, in the best moments, something more than that. Bethan Cullinane’s Cordelia makes as much sense as is possible out of a character who refuses to flatter her father the king, thus enraging Lear and setting off the chain of events that lead to tragedy. Hers is a far more persuasive Cordelia than the one, for example, in Frank Langella’s Lear at BAM. (Cullinane also plays the Fool in a silly hat, strictly for laughs.) Alex Mugnaioni has affecting moments as the wronged Edgar, especially when half-naked smeared with dirt pretending to be mad, and John Stahl does an intense Gloucester at times. Those times do not include the eye-plucking scene, which director Bill Buckhurst inexplicably treats as if it were a Monty Python routine – ho, ho how amusingly Cornwall (again Alex Mugnaioni) throws away Gloucester’s bloody eyeballs.
Marcell is plausible as an old man facing unbearable loss and his own past foolishness, but since he is never quite credibly commanding as a powerful king to begin with, his decline lacks the stuff of tragedy.
Of course, tragedy is not the be-all and end-all of entertainment, and this production is all about entertaining from the get-go. While we are still getting to our seats, the performers wander the aisles in greeting. We are serenaded by accordion, and treated to a merry song and dance before any actor utters a word. Once the play begins, the house lights stay up – as if to mimic the usual outdoor venues where Shakespeare’s Globe performs – and the action takes place in small makeshift set within the larger stage at the Skirball Center. The company calls their set an “Elizabethan booth,” although it looks a little like the inside of a cabin at a boy’s summer camp. In any case, it helps imbue this production with the romance of a traveling troupe of Shakespeareans — inventive, clever on a low budget (we see the piece of metal that a company member shakes to create the storm sound effect), garbed in festive grab-bag costumes, playful, charming. Even after everybody has died tragically on the stage, they all get up and dance and prance and play their own musical instruments to original tunes composed by Alex Silverman. They look like they’re having fun up there. We’d surely enjoy the party just as much, if it weren’t supposed to be King Lear.
A Shakespeare’s Globe production presented by New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts (566 La Guardia Place, at Washington Square South)
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Bill Buckhurst; designed by Jonathan Fensom; music by Alex Silverman; choreography by Georgina Lamb; fight director, Kevin McCurdy
Cast: Gwendolen Chatfield (Goneril/Curan), Bethan Cullinane (Cordelia/Fool), Joseph Marcell (King Lear), Alex Mugnaioni (Edgar/Duke of Cornwall/Duke of Burgundy), Bill Nash (Earl of Kent), Daniel Pirrie (Edmund/Oswald/King of France), Shanaya Rafaat (Regan) and John Stahl (Earl of Gloucester/Duke of Albany/Doctor).
Running time: three hour, including one intermission.
King Lear is set to run through October 12th.