The king of kings
The Kingsmen Company takes on the challenge of presenting Shakespeare’s masterpiece
By Jenny Lower 07/19/2007
Near the end of King Lear, Shakespeare’s tragedy of parents and children set in ancient, pagan Britain, the play’s two fallen patriarchs stumble upon each other on a barren heath in the middle of a raging storm. The mentally-ravaged Lear, abandoned by his vengeful older daughters after spurning the faithful Cordelia, at first can only mutter gibberish to the Earl of Gloucester, whose misjudgment of his own offspring has caused him to be captured and his eyes to be plucked out.
But a fleeting moment of lucidity allows the mad king to briefly recognize his blinded counterpart, and he greets him as an old friend. It is a heartbreaking reunion, a fragile moment of peace before Lear slips back into madness. Before long, both men will be dead.
The scene is the one of the most arresting moments in the play, and one Michael Arndt, artistic director of this year’s Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival and director of King Lear, worked on relentlessly with actor John Slade, who plays the title character.
The encounter represents a “real bonding that cuts through everything else,” Arndt says. “That’s probably my favorite scene in the play.”
The tale of paternal madness and filial ingratitude marks a distinct departure from Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Kingsmen Company’s earlier, lighter offering at this season’s annual summer festival, now in its 11th year on the grounds of Cal Lutheran University. Lear, which Shakespeare based on an earlier 12th century legend and completed somewhere between 1603 and 1605, depicts an elderly king who decides to abdicate his throne and divide his assets among his three daughters. His failure to perceive accurately which child loves him most, however, causes Lear unbearable agony, costing him his sanity and eventually his life. The play is a difficult story, a masterful tour de force not to be undertaken lightly.
Though in the past 10 years the Kingsmen have tackled nearly every other major work in the bard’s repertoire, until now they have held off on King Lear. The tragedy’s heavy material offers an immense challenge, Arndt explains.
“It’s a very powerful play about aging, about deceit, about greed, about power,” he says. “The complexity of the play is so intense … it exceeds even Hamlet.”
With a decade of successful productions under the company’s belt, however, Arndt says the actors are ready to delve into what he calls “Shakespeare’s masterpiece.” That means allowing actresses who have traditionally played candy-sweet ingénues to transition to the meat-and-potatoes wickedness of Lear’s two power-hungry daughters.
J.J. Rodgers, whose credits include Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Julia in Two Gentlemen of Verona, was eager to plunge into the role of Goneril, the ruthless oldest daughter who plots to kill her husband before poisoning her sister Regan.
“She’s so un-redeeming and there’s just really nothing to like about her. It’s such a nice contrast,” Rodgers says. “It’s a much more powerful, strong part.”
Jane Longenecker, who has played Desdemona, Ophelia and Juliet, says her challenge in depicting Regan, the middle child who assists her husband in blinding Gloucester, was learning how to portray something as illusory as evil.
“You can’t really go out and just say ‘I’m going to play evil,’ because people that are evil by nature don’t think that they are,” she says. She hopes “when I get to that really dark place, then [the audience] will be really surprised by that.”
Descending into that dark place without succumbing to simplistic, cartoonish stereotypes was essential to keeping the play’s story “vital and current,” Slade says.
For Slade, who also directed the Kingsmen’s 2004 production of Henry V, portraying an aged king in the advanced stages of senility became highly personal. Last year, he lost his mother-in-law to dementia, an experience he says gave the play fresh immediacy when he began rehearsal a few weeks ago. It is the kind of “shock of recognition” he hopes the audience will feel as well when the play opens July 20.
For an aging American population experiencing rising rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s, Slade’s wish is painfully possible. Arndt says for a generation of baby boomers like himself living and working longer, the play raises compelling questions.
“How do you let go of power? How do you gracefully get older?” And more pointedly: “How do we deal with those people in our society who aren’t able to take care of themselves, and do we reject them?”