Everybody plays dirty and nobody wins in this one. It's Shakespeare at his loudest and showiest, complete with onstage eye-gougings and bodies piling up like cordwood. Yum yum yum.
First performed for King James in 1606, King Lear, now getting a spiffy, pared-down staging at Kitchen Dog Theater, still resonates to the modern zeitgeist with its soap-operatic story lines of sibling rivalries and daddies who play favorites. The Bard also penned some trenchant political commentary within the lines of Lear about the problems of the homeless and the mentally ill (an issue as pressing then as now), and the gnawing resentment felt by illegitimate children seeking acceptance by birth-fathers who have no use for them.
King Lear is a king-sized, blood-soaked crazy quilt of human emotions. It's sometimes baffling in its complex, overlapping plotlines and, on the page, it's wildly overpopulated with peripheral servants, messengers, courtiers and toadies.
For the Kitchen Dog production, however, director Dan Day has simplified things. He's banished all but the most essential characters (Duke of Burgundy, begone!), and he's placed them in a stripped-down setting. Designer Scott Osborne plays up the back-to-basics theme using ordinary wooden ladders, unpainted movable platforms and cinder blocks to indicate various palaces and other locales. A three-level wall of mirrored squares upstage sometimes swings open for a funhouse effect of multiple reflections. That's as fancy as the set changes get.
The costumes by Cheri A. Cox look nearly Amish in their plainness. She dresses the actors--half a dozen professional Kitchen Dog company members and nine drama students from Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts--in uncluttered modern suits of black, white and gray.
The monochrome starkness of the set and the clean lines of the clothes focus the attention on Shakespeare's gorgeous, heavily textured words and help underscore one of the play's most repeated themes: that a man must lose every material thing he holds dear in order to know the truth about himself.
That is, of course, what happens to old Lear (played by Kieran Connolly). At the start of the play, in a scene director Day fashions to look like a press reception, 80-year-old Lear, as puffy and vulgar as Donald Trump, gathers his three daughters, Goneril (Tina Parker), Regan (Liza Marie Gonzalez) and Cordelia (Karissa Vacker), and their spouses to announce his imminent retirement. Wishing to divide his loot equally among the three women, he first asks each of them to quantify how much she loves dear old dad. Greedy Goneril and her scheming sister Regan play along.
"Sir, I love you more than words can wield the matter. Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty," says smarmy Goneril. Regan seconds the emotions. King Lear kvells.
Then comes Cordelia's turn. She honestly loves Big Daddy but won't stoop to playing "Can You Top This?" against Regan and Goneril. When Lear asks what she can say to show she loves him even more than her sibs do, she answers, "Nothing, my lord."
That doesn't sit well with thick-headed Lear, who says, "Nothing will come of nothing."
Cordelia won't go gooey over Dada, so all hell breaks loose, with loyalties shifting and evil plots thickening as fast as a good episode of The Sopranos.
Lear cuts Cordelia out of the will and banishes her and her fiance, the King of France (Iman Nazemzadeh). Goneril and Regan plot to get Lear whacked sooner than later. Goneril, already boinking her servant Oswald (played by dishy blond Chad Daniel), sleeps with Regan's husband, too. Regan imprisons Lear's pal, the Earl of Gloucester (Lynn Mathis), and torments him by plucking out his eyes one at a time with her bare hands (the first recorded torture scene on the English-speaking stage, by the way). Gloucester's bastard son Edmund (Yorke Fryer), meanwhile, cooks up some dastardly plans of his own.
Lear goes nuts and wanders the countryside with his advice-spouting Fool (Michael Turner) and a deranged homeless man who's really Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar (Benjamin Lutz) in disguise. The trio gets caught in a howling storm. The king tears off his clothes and rails at Mother Nature, declaring that man owes nothing to anyone.
Stripped of his pride, Lear comes to his senses, but too late. By the end of Act 5 (roughly 180 minutes into Kitchen Dog's performance), almost everyone has been hoist on his or her own petard. It's a regular bonanza of death scenes (we liked Oswald's best).
A monumental work such as King Lear is no skip in the park, and Kitchen Dog's cast performs with an admirable dedication to getting across the story points as clearly as possible. Giving the best performances are Tina Parker as steely-eyed Goneril and Liza Marie Gonzalez as the vampiric Regan. Lynn Mathis makes a sturdy Gloucester. Benjamin Lutz is a gangly but strangely compelling Edgar, particularly when he's bounding around in the storm in his underwear. (The performance reviewed was at SMU's Margo Jones Theatre, where the production premiered before moving to Kitchen Dog Theater at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary.)
As Lear, Kieran Connolly gets better as the play goes on. In Acts 1 through 3 he's too much the high-powered CEO type. Only in the mad scenes of Acts 4 and 5 does he finally calm down and find the real center of the character. His death scene, holding the expired Cordelia, is heartbreaking.
The only real problem with Connolly's performance is his propensity for delivering dialogue drenched with showers of spittle. At times, huge ropes of drool dangle from his beard. If your tickets are in the first two rows, wear a raincoat or you'll get wetter than the crowd at a Gallagher concert.
This may be the first Lear in 400 years to produce his own precipitation during the hurricane scene.