Reviewed by Maureen Lee Lenker
A Noise Within
Through May 6th
While Hamlet may be the brass ring for young male actors, King Lear looms large for those who’ve sustained their career into late middle age and beyond. A play that tells of an unhinged dictatorial ruler going off the rails to his and his nation’s detriment is chilling in this political climate. But A Noise Within focuses so much more wholly on the intimate human complexities of the play — rather than its broader political implications — that the latter become something that niggles at the back of your mind without subsuming the proceedings.
While Lear presents a striking portrait of the ravages of age for any generation, modern medicine has brought its own perspective. Many have sought to assign a medical malady to the King, and this production commits wholeheartedly to the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The choice is a powerful one in the hands of a gifted ensemble.
Dave Mickey’s projections feature a series of brain scans that loom large during scene changes and are by turns confusing and a bit heavy-handed. Still, the simplicity of Fred Kinney’s scenic design makes up for this slightly ham-fisted choice. My main issue with the projections is the sharp distracting contrast they present with the production’s mid-twentieth century setting (manifest in the silhouette of Dior’s “New Look” that dominates Angela Balogh Calin’s elegant and gorgeous costume design). The projections, on the other hand, are modern and sterile, and represent an intrusion of relatively new science on the story.
Still, while these images may be ill-advised, the production overall is a delicate and deft take on Lear. The women in the cast do particularly strong work, with Arie Thompson’s Regan and Trisha Miller’s Goneril shifting between downright villainy and empathetic ire. Erika Soto imbues Cordelia, arguably Shakespeare’s most boring heroine, with a solid strength and pureness of heart that makes her a more compelling figure.
One of the production’s strongest suits is its decision to initially paint Lear in a harsh light — he is a tyrant accustomed to getting his way, a circumstance made worse by the muddles and confusion of his dementia. Geoff Elliott’s Lear is a booming, frightening man, one who veers wildly from playfulness to crackling rage before passing in and out of madness. When his daughters deny his requests, he displays such startling anger that the audience is cowed into submission. This is not the temper tantrum of a child that accompanies the deeper throes of madness — it’s a searing explosion of pent-up anger and despair that palpably comes from a raw wound of helpless confusion in the face of an unraveling mind and body.
In this production, we are wholly on Goneril and Regan’s side as they try to deal with a father who asks the impossible and cruelly verbally eviscerates them when they do not comply. The two sisters are not so much villains as women who are simply doing the best they can and make all too human errors in the process. This is a welcome shift from the standard, and an opportunity to view them in the shades of grey that Shakespeare so often paints his villains. But it does undercut their out-and-out evil in the second half of the play, where they suddenly transform from daughters at the end of their rope to adulteresses filled with bloodlust. Not enough motivation is established for this transition, and the result is their denigration from fully developed characters to caricature.
Freddy Douglas’s Edmund is delectably evil; he consistently simmers with quiet rage. The problem is that Edgar (Rafael Goldstein) and Gloucester (Apollo Dukakis) are so saintly by comparison that we lose track of the slights and misfortunes that have driven Edmund to his misdeeds. It’s not so much that Goldstein and Dukakis fail to give compelling performances — it’s that Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s direction leaves them little choice but to operate as wholly virtuous and heroic figures. Elliott’s Lear also loses some of his emotional heft in the second half, retreating so far into himself and childishness that we lose much of the initial power in his performance. Even if you’re sitting near the stage, it becomes difficult to hear him at times.
The first half of the production is a rousing tour-de-force that portrays the characters in a complex and challenging light and keeps us on our toes. It ends with visceral outbursts, and an unanticipated and horrifying explanation for Shakespeare’s omission of the Fool from the second half. Kasey Mahaffy offers a chilling turn as the Fool, a man who seems more bitter than playful as he doles out harsh truths to Lear in the form of rhyme and riddle; his gleaming, ghoulish take on the Fool’s jests hint at something more sinister, while simultaneously making it clear that he is perhaps Lear’s truest friend — a man who will stand by him without succumbing to blind slavish devotion. When he vanishes, his presence is sorely missed.
In Act 2, the play sinks under its own weight: The inspired acting and directorial choices that went before get lost in the muddled thrust of the plot, and the moments of comic relief that leavened the tragedy in Act I disappear, as Lear’s full-blown madness and the conspiratorial actions of the other players come to dominate the story. Moreover, the devastation that his illness wrecks upon his family and kingdom packs far less of a punch with the director’s choice to find hope in the play’s conclusion.
Still, this Lear is worth a look if only for the deftness of its first act. Though the production loses impact as its plunges towards its conclusion, the play remains a brutal and agonizing look at the havoc of old age and the ways in which mental illness can bring a family — and a nation — to its knees.
A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd, Pasadena; in repertory Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.- Sun., 2 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 6th. www.anoisewithin.org; Running time: three hours with an intermission