Larry Yando (right) is Lear, and Ross Lehman is his Fool in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “King Lear.”
KING LEAR HIGHLY RECOMMENDED •Through Nov. 9 • Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand on Navy Pier • Tickets: $48- $78 • Info: (312) 595-5600; chicagoshakes.com • Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
The centerpiece of every “King Lear” is a ferocious thunderstorm, when the aging man who once held all the power in his kingdom suddenly finds himself stripped bare of any privilege and protection, shorn of his identity, and without even the most elemental roof over his head. He has not only lost his throne; he has lost his manhood.
To be sure, just such a drenching, thunderous storm rages unforgivingly in Barbara Gaines’ lean, sweeping, subtly musical and altogether riveting production of this epic tragedy, now at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But the real storm here is inside Lear’s head — inside the mind of an aging, volatile man who has acted rashly, been treated badly by two of his three grown daughters, and is showing many of the signs of early dementia.
Watch Larry Yando (an actor of such quicksilver moods, breathtaking timing, total physical expressiveness and bristling intelligence that he should, by any reckoning, be an internationally renowned star) undergo these dramatic shifts in fate and temperament, and you see the radical transformation occur in starkest relief. This Lear has flashes of insight all along, but his impulses and perceptions are erratic and extreme. He is in the throes of death, but it will not come quickly or easily.
Our initial glimpse of the man finds him the recipient of the grotesque, infantile indulgences accorded a king as, seated on a red velvet settee/throne, he smashes several remotes — each immediately replaced — as he tries to find the Frank Sinatra tune of his liking. He then quickly plunges into his own self-destruction by impulsively dividing his kingdom according to the professed “love” of his three daughters (who, in her casting, Gaines suggests had different mothers).
Larry Yando (left) is Lear, with Nehaissaiu DeGannes as Cordelia and Kevin Gudahl as the Duke of Kent in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of “King Lear.”
Goneril (Bianca LaVerne Jones is a bitterly angry viper whose own husband, played by the excellent Nathan M. Hosner, begins to find her appalling), and Regan (Jessiee Datino, as a more seductive manipulator, married to a sadist, played by Lance Baker), tell Lear precisely what he wants to hear. And, before cannibalizing each other, they proceed to abuse him as he is bounced between their unwelcoming households and finally banished. The unbendingly honest Cordelia (Nehassaiu deGannes, lovely, but far from wimpy), is promptly cut out of his will, and rescued by a younger monarch, the King of France (Christopher Chmelik), who perceives her true value as a human being.
In a parallel story line, Lear’s similarly aging (and literally blinded) counselor, the Earl of Gloucester (Michael Aaron Lindner, like Yando an actor of supremely musical impulses), cannot comprehend the nature of his own sons. He clearly favors the evil, opportunistic bastard son, Edmund (Jesse Luke), over the innately loving but naive Edgar (Steve Haggard, who, in an exquisite performance, morphs with grace and heart into “Mad Tom,” and finally bonds with his mad father in the storm). Accompanying Lear, Gloucester and “Tom” in that storm are Lear’s devoted Fool (a deftly playful Ross Lehman), as well as his ever-faithful advisor, Kent (a fine turn by Kevin Gudahl), who assumes a ratty disguise and is subjected to much punishment for his good deeds.
Gaines’ attention to detail here is impressive. (The painting in Lear’s castle is a montage of a royal family by Velasquez; Lear’s once pristine red throne reappears, battered and broken, in a storm scene that has visual echoes of “Waiting for Godot.”) And her collaborators are in perfect synchrony, with Mark Bailey suggesting war with France with nothing more than a chain mail curtain, and Lindsay Jones creating a sound mix that captures the broken synapses in Lear’s head.
But this is a “King Lear” that never gets derailed by style. Listen to Yando’s wails at the end of the production and you will feel a man who has plunged fully into the maelstrom.