(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
King Lear is one of William Shakespeare’s most famous, and most produced, tragedies, exploring the foibles of age, the bitterness of family disputes, and the deadly repercussions of pride. However, in the late 1600s, a different sort of King Lear came to dominate the English stage, one revised by a writer named Nahum Tate to remove what he saw as objectionable material, including the play’s tragic ending.
The Hidden Room has unearthed this text, officially titled The History of King Lear, and is performing it through Nov 29. The production, directed by Beth Burns, utilizes Tate’s text to turn Lear from a tragedy into a fairy tale, as Burns herself notes in her curtain speech. The setting – an elongated hall inside of a Masonic temple – lends itself nicely to this change, leading the viewer to feel like observers of an unfolding political and family drama, rather than the audience of a play.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this production – aside from the altered text – is the use of Restoration-era acting techniques to create a period-accurate performance. In practice, this means that the actors are constantly creating expressive gestures with their arms, hands, and feet that serve as a secondary score to the words themselves. In addition to showcasing the prodigious skills of the remarkable cast, these gestures defiantly pronounce a focus on the underlying melodrama of the plot.
Although technically impressive, the gestures do detract somewhat from the pleasure of seeing talented performers work through the smaller, more intimate moments of the play, something that could be a true delight in such an intimate setting. As such, some of the performances are slightly hobbled by this affectation, while others shine.
Of particular note, Judd. Farris and Nathan Jerkins portray Edgar and Edmund, and use this unique physicality to seduce the audience into complicity with their wildly different goals. Similarly, the evil sisters of Gonnerill and Regan – played by Jill Swanson and Liz Beckham – use the heightened physicality to portray a grotesque obnoxiousness that charms even as it repels.
Julia Lorenz Olson, as Cordelia, is more quietly delightful, while Ryan Crowder’s Lear – although sometimes a bit over the top – provides a haunting look into the confluence of pride and madness.
The amount of prodigious research that clearly went into this production must also be applauded, particularly in regards to the live chamber orchestra and the talented artists who created the magnificent Restoration-era costumes and wigs worn by the cast. Such external trappings wholly reinforce the historical goals of The Hidden Room’s The History of King Lear, a production that certainly takes some of the sting out of the serpent’s tooth that is Shakespeare’s Lear, turning it into a classical comedy that ends with a celebration rather than a tragedy that ends in death.
As the bard himself has noted, though, “Many a true word hath been spoken in jest.”
“The History of King Lear” continues through Nov. 29. hiddenroomtheatre.com