Shakespeare In Clark Park offers up a visually arresting and adequate production of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, but the real star of the show is the company’s outreach initiatives.
If you need a recap: the play begins with Lear (Dan Kern) declaring he’ll split up his kingdom three ways to bestow onto his daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia (Charlotte Northeast, Kimie Muroya, and Jessa Money, respectively). However, he requires each of them to declare the lengths of their love (hint: it should be limitless), and when his youngest daughter Cordelia reasons that her love should be, well, reasonable, he disowns her. Power grabs and betrayals abound, and Lear comes to lose his mind as his other two daughters show their true colors.
We often hold up Lear as a play that explores filial obedience or lack thereof (“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”), but I see it as Shakespeare’s contemplation on loyalty in its various forms: loyalty to one’s convictions, loyalty to those we have sworn to protect and serve, even the loyalty to desires that bring about our downfalls. How we choose who and what we are loyal to is a tricky process.
Director Kittson O’Neill (who also serves as the company’s artistic director) leans into the familial angle, and our loyalties are meant to live with Lear and the other men wronged by their children or siblings. Kern presents a stable Lear, with his temper provoked and legitimized by the injustices of his daughters. Even when he curses Goneril to have a barren womb or children that are deformed because she suggests he and his team of 100 soldiers stop acting like the Delta frat from Animal House in her home, there’s still the sense that his rage is acceptable.
What are the consequences?
Moving onto Gloucester, a man who jokes about how his illegitimate son, Edmund (a beguiling Ezra Ali-Dow), came into existence and describes—in front of Edmund— how Edmund’s mom was a good lay. But with the ever-affable and engaging Brian Anthony Wilson as Gloucester, it’s hard to see Gloucester as anything but a fun-loving guy who gently ribs his overly self-conscious son. Edmund in turn plots to destroy both his father and his noble brother Edgar (a passionate Cameron Delgrosso) in revenge of his bastardy, but he also engineers the downfall of Goneril and Regan by making them fly into jealous rages as they fight over him. But Ali-Dow is so charming that Edmund’s evil is delicious to witness, and we don’t have to live with the consequences of his actions for long.
But without consequences, what’s the point? Though this is the kind of play where no one really wins in the end, and all of our evil-doers meet a fitting end for their actions, this production left me feeling hollow. Even when we see Cordelia, one of the “pure” people of this play, laid out on a table after her wrongful demise and Lear succumbing to dementia before collapsing over her in grief, there is a disconnect from cathartic sorrow. Lear is a play that is full of possibilities for characters to take a look inward and for a production to delve into what makes and breaks our faiths, but O’Neill’s production provides us with only brief glimpses, and the result fails to reach the heights of which it is capable. It’s a fine production, but in the end we are left with women who are selfish succubi or unfailingly pure, and men with acceptable anger.
Art for the sake of art?
Jenna Kuerzi, an actor who has lived in the Philly shadows for far too long, is fantastic as Lear’s Fool. She tackles the Fool’s dense language and circuitous logic deftly, providing a joyous and much-needed source of comedy. But she also lets the Fool’s inner life come forward, painting the portrait of a jester whose purpose is to bring emotional support in the form of laughter for an old man who is slowly losing his mind. Dan Hodge is a solid presence as Kent, a nobleman and follower of Lear, who spends most of the play in disguise after being banished at the start of the play so that he can stay in Lear’s service. Northeast dominates as the icy and sharp Goneril.
Costume and set designer Sebastienne Mundheim’s aesthetic can perhaps be best described as samurais crashing a druid party: most of the cast is clad in robed garments that seemed borrowed from the Japanese tradition, but Lear and his daughters also sport horns and other boney structures strapped to their backs, shoulders, and heads. Goneril has a kind of backpack/snowshoe addition that is equal parts striking and perplexing. It’s all eye-catching, but it feels more like art for the sake of art—distracting from rather than supporting the world of this play. And the costumes themselves prove cumbersome, with movements hindered or mics getting knocked about, making the crackle through the speakers a near constant.
The night that I attended, the tech elements were haphazardly executed, with mics cutting in and out, onstage actors fighting to be heard as feedback from offstage actors’ mics played on the speakers, and distracting set changes occurring mid-monologue. But the production had to contend with lost time due to the recent heat wave, which stole precious hours of rehearsal outside. Funnily enough, this added a chaotic charm.
While Shakespeare in Clark Park’s primary function is to put on a yearly production of one of Shakespeare’s plays, it also weaves in an admirable amount of community engagement and partnerships. This year it invited the youth symphony of Play On, Philly! to underscore the show, and also worked with veterans in the community (a few of them had roles in the ensemble), whom the artists found through Impact Services.
If I stood back and saw the production as a piece of what Shakespeare in Clark Park sets out to achieve—providing free summer entertainment for its neighborhood, giving young artists a place to play their music, and collaborating with organizations that uplift veterans—it still felt like an evening well-spent.
What, When, Where
King Lear. By William Shakespeare, directed by Kittson O’Neill. Through July 28, 2019 in West Philly’s Clark Park, 4300-4398 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 764-5345 or shakespeareinclarkpark.org.