King Lear at Skirball Review: Lear Light, With Accordion Accompaniment

Yes, this is King Lear
Yes, this is King Lear

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.


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

2 thoughts on “King Lear at Skirball Review: Lear Light, With Accordion Accompaniment

  1. I can only assume that Jonathan Mandell isn’t familiar with how Globe productions work. Even Shakespeare’s most tragic plays were traditionally accompanied by musical interludes. The performance at the end was a device intended to break the dramatic tension built up by the play and to remind its audience of the frame of the play. I suggest Jonathan Mandell, Charles Isherwood and others of their ilk direct their bootless complaints to the King’s Men or the Royal Shakespeare Company. Somehow I doubt they’d care what you think.

  2. I’m familiar with how Globe productions work. I have no problem with the “light” touches–actors wandering the stage before the play, singing and playing instruments during the play, providing sound effects, and then all doing a jig at the end. The jig can be moving in it’s own right. I didn’t stay for the jig in this production, which failed for me on multiple levels. Why confine the actors to that small set? Did they decide the fool’s mouse ears were amusing during a drunken night out? I’ve seen actors practicing Elizabethan style fighting at the Globe, is this the best they can do? It’s not dramatic if it appears that the actors know where every thrust is going to land. And the costumes. Some seemed Elizabethan. Some seemed unfashionable from more modern times. I dress better than the King, though my wife would probably disagree. Much of this I could overlook if the performances were stellar, but they were hit or miss. I thought the actress playing Cordelia was strong as Cordelia, but a miss as the Fool. The other sisters were entirely unconvincing. King Lear did not seem kingly. Too much forced laughing. Perhaps the actors needed more directing. Their energy seemed aimless. They didn’t seem to be responding to each other. Those are my honest complaints from the night I saw the play.

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