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« Chicago Speaks: Comorian, as Spoken by Charif Hachim, Honorary Consul General of Comoros in Chicago House Theatre Plants a Big Wet Kiss on the Theater Industry »

Theater Tue Sep 23 2014

Chicago Shakespeare Stages Warm, Humanistic King Lear

Photo by Liz Lauren. Ross Lehman and Larry Yando.

King Lear, perhaps William Shakespeare's most-revered play, is an existential tragedy. It's a story of power and family lost, mind and health destroyed. But it's also a retirement story and a family tragedy. It's amazing how deeply and warmly current issues are treated in this 400-year-old masterpiece.

Fathers mourn relationships with their children. Siblings fight over the estate before the parent dies. Old men suffer the tears and trauma of aging. And most profoundly, we see the onset of dementia in someone who has been a brilliant and powerful leader.

Chicago's Larry Yando may not be old enough to be called a legend, but his performance as Lear is legendary in this new modern-dress Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production, directed by Barbara Gaines. He is a bored and fickle king in the opening scene, tossing aside faulty remotes as he clicks through Frank Sinatra songs to find one he likes: "I've Got the World on a String." Then he's decisive as he divides his kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands. Finally, he's forced into exile with his Fool (wisely and wittily played by Ross Lehman, another Chicago Shakespeare veteran). As Lear's mind fails, he suffers degradation into a wild man in the wild. At the end, he is left a bereaved father who has lost all.

I have seen Yando perform superbly in many productions. As Roy Cohn in Angels in America. As Scar in The Lion King. As Prospero in The Tempest. As Richard Nixon the night before his resignation in Nixon's Nixon. But the Yando performance I remember most vividly is a similar portrayal of decline from power to exile in Timon of Athens, a 1997 production by the theater then called Shakespeare Repertory. (In 1999, it moved to its current venue on Navy Pier and became Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.)

Kevin Gudahl as Lear's adviser Kent rounds out the trio of veteran Chicago actors who provide this production with its visceral strength. Lance Baker is also excellent as daughter Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall. Michael Aaron Lindner as the Earl of Gloucester is affecting in his relationships with his sons and finally his brutal treatment at the hands of Cornwall. "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport," he laments. Steve Haggard and Jesse Luken as Gloucester's sons, Edgar and Edmund, are also strong characterizations.

The three actors who play Lear's daughters Goneril (Bianca LaVerne Jones), Regan (Jessie Datino) and Cordelia (Nehassaiu de Gaines) all have significant stage experience but are new to Shakespearean work. Their performances unfortunately show this lack of experience. They are certainly adequate but their performances lack the dramatic and vocal power of the rest of the cast.

Barbara Gaines' productions are often over-the-top in scenic design, lighting and sound but in this King Lear, minimalism prevails. Mark Bailey's simple scenic design works very well for this modern-dress Lear and Michael Geno's dramatic lighting design highlights the performances of individual actors. A lovely detail in the initial scene in Lear's palace is a painting that looks adapted from Velasquez' "Las Meninas" (The Royal Family).

Lindsay Jones' original music and sound design makes fine emotive use of thunderclaps and songs from the Sinatra oeuvre, arranged with the Sinatra estate. Most affecting is the final track, "Where Do You Go," with the lyrics "Where do you go when it starts to rain / Where will you sleep when the night time comes / What do you do when your heart's in pain." As this music plays, Lear cradles the murdered Cordelia in a pieta-like scene. He has lost everything, his mind, his power, his family, his beloved daughter.

The King Lear text that Gaines uses is primarily from Shakespeare's 1623 First Folio, but is staged in two acts rather than four. Running time is 2:40, including one intermission.

Chicago Shakespeare is presenting King Lear through Nov. 9 in its Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier, 800 W. Grand Ave. Performances are at varying times Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $45-78 and can be bought online. The theater also offers "CST for $20" tickets for those under 35. For more information, call 312-595-5600.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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