Losing Lear’s essence

Bristol Riverside Theatre presents Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’

4 minute read
A cast of six women take on the Bard’s tale of greed, hubris, and disloyalty at Bristol Riverside Theatre. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
A cast of six women take on the Bard’s tale of greed, hubris, and disloyalty at Bristol Riverside Theatre. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Nothing will come of nothing—so says the aging monarch in the classic tragedy to his ungrateful progeny. Bristol Riverside Theatre’s (BRT) ambitious but ultimately undercooked reinvention of Shakespeare’s King Lear proves that sometimes nothing will come of something.

Ten years of Lear

The Bard’s great tale of greed, hubris, and familial disloyalty offers many avenues for exploration. This likely explains its ceaseless popularity, which persists despite its length and generally grim worldview.

In the last decade or so alone, New York has seen Kevin Kline, Ian McKellen, Frank Langella, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow, Derek Jacobi, and Glenda Jackson as the aging monarch. Just last season, Quintessence Theatre and Shakespeare in Clark Park both staged the play in Philadelphia. For actors and auteurs with something to say, King Lear is a well that rarely runs dry.

Chasing the essence

BRT’s assumption promised an intriguing and out-of-the-box consideration of the enduring drama. The suburban theater imported the Manhattan-based troupe Bedlam, which is known for its radical reinterpretations of classic plays. Director Eric Tucker—who staged a musical adaptation of The Rivals at the same venue last season—isn’t afraid to take a pair of scissors to the classical canon’s most enduring works, shedding characters, context, and convention in an effort to pare a play down to its essence.

Tucker does just that here, but to a less satisfying effect than he’s achieved in the past. (Bedlam’s marquee achievement, a production of Shaw’s Saint Joan that has toured extensively, is rightly acclaimed for both its fluidity and accessibility.) The text has been trimmed to a tight, intermission-less 100 minutes, distilled into eight scenes, all of which center Lear at the expense of those in his orbit. The cast consists of six women. With the exception of Zuzanna Szadkowski in the title role, all take on multiple parts.

Lacking layers

Unlike Bedlam’s Saint Joan, which took a play that can seem talky and ponderous and turned it into something thrilling and approachable, Tucker’s Lear unspools with an oddly academic slant. Those who don’t know the play well will likely find themselves reliant on the extensive dramaturgical notes included in the program, which explain the various movements in time and setting. (Jason Simms’s industrial unit set and Lisa Zinni’s blandly contemporary costumes do little to provoke a sense of period or place.) Those who do know that play—and I consider myself in this camp—might also be left scratching their heads.

The raw material for a great King Lear: Zuzanna Szadkowski in Bedlam’s adaptation. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
The raw material for a great King Lear: Zuzanna Szadkowski in Bedlam’s adaptation. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

The greatest surprise of this production is how little interest Tucker seems to have in exploring the subtextual layers of his concept. Despite the consistent use of he/him pronouns for Lear and the other characters who are typically gendered male, the woman-centered casting offers an opportunity to interpret Lear’s family struggle from a mother-daughter perspective. But perhaps because of double- and triple-casting within the small company—or perhaps because the acting across the board is vaguely general—one could almost overlook the ancestral scuffle that sets the story in motion, to say nothing of its consequences.

Tucker also largely deletes the parallel narrative of the Earl of Gloucester and his sons, the malevolent Edmund and faithful Edgar, removing an additional layer of contrast from the proceedings. When Gloucester does appear to rescue Lear from the ravages of the wilderness, the danger of his good deed goes unnoticed due to lack of context. (Lisa Birnbaum also employs an inexplicably thick Texas accent in the role.) Since Edgar is not a character in this adaptation, the presence of his Poor Tom alter-ego (played by Eliza Fichter) makes little sense.

Running on fumes?

Some elements of this production are now so commonplace as to seem stereotypical, like the double-casting of Cordelia and the Fool. (It does not make the same impression here that it did in last year’s Broadway revival, in which Ruth Wilson drew fascinating connections between the characters.) Others—like enacting the storm scene by having Szadkowski’s Lear dump bottles of water and alcohol around the stage—seem vaguely borrowed from European directors like Ivo van Hove or Thomas Ostermeier. Still more suggest that Bedlam might be running on fumes.

In her best moments, Szadkowski exhibits the raw material for a great King Lear. Let’s hope she finds a production that will allow her to realize that potential.

What, When, Where

King Lear. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Eric Tucker. Through February 16, 2020, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. (215) 785-0100 or brtstage.org.

Bristol Riverside Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue, with accessible seating available for all performances. Patrons with questions about accessibility can contact the box office at (215) 785-0100.

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