When our esteemed Houston Shakespeare Festival stays true to the spirit and tenor of Shakespeare, the results can be terribly good, near great. The indomitable tragedy King Lear is in loving hands this 47th season, an affecting production in which all invest their most.
The landscape of Lear is bleak, broken. Goodness gets punished, morality has a price, loyalty is mocked, vanity is worthless, children are venal, and the old go mad. This is the very definition of tragedy, the Greek kind molded into the heavens by Shakespeare's genius in plotting, characterization, and empyrean poetry. Hamlet may be subtler, but Lear possesses unquenchable power and heat. You cannot fail to be moved by the aged king and his wounded pride that lays him low.
This production lasts under three hours with one intermission – for an order of fries, or a bucket of popcorn, a hot dog, some beer or wine – all odors wafting through the open-air auditorium at Miller Outdoor Theatre while sublime Shakespeare plays on the boards, but the play flies by as if on fire. Even the stifling heat is forgotten, if not forgiven.
This holiday atmosphere is very Globe Theatre, Shakespeare's own venue that had groundlings munching on hazelnuts and oranges while Lear's tempest rages with its “Blow winds and crack your cheeks!” The added surprise to this version is another authentic nod to Elizabethan theater, the ubiquitous cross-dressing tradition when women were forbidden to be actresses. Wesley Whitson (one of Houston's most surprising actors) plays both the Fool and Lear's favorite daughter Cordelia. He is superb in both roles, nimble and acid-quick as the old man's jester, then soft, smart, and assured as banished daughter. Some in the audience were surprised, then delighted, during the curtain call when Witson in Cordelia drag put on the Fool's cockscomb hat to let them know he had played both parts.
Old Lear (a mighty Jack Young [HSF's artistic director], keening at betrayal, whimpering at his impotence), still vigorous but wanting to step aside, divides his kingdom among his three daughters if they vow their love for him. Goneril (Lauren Senechal) and Regan (Laura Frye Banovez), lying, profess un-dying love. Cordelia, his favorite, will not play his game. She says her love is as it's always been. In blind rage, Lear disowns and banishes her, which begins his life's unrelenting downward spiral. Courtier Kent (Andrew Garett) supports Cordelia, but his protestations banish him likewise. The eldest daugh-ters conspire against Lear, mock and abuse him, and drive him out into the storm. His madness begins.
In subsidiary plot, faithful courtier Glouchester (Kenn Hopkins, Jr.), another father, is framed by his illegitimate son Edmund (a brilliant Iago-like portrayal by Caleb Clark) as a traitor. Glouschester's “good” son Edgar (Kyle Clark, equally enthralling) escapes the treachery and masquerades as itinerant beggar “Tom o' Bedlam.” Events go from bad to worst. [What the hell was going on in Shakespeare's life at the time?] Glouchester is caught, blinded, and cast into the wildness to be found by Edgar. More betrayals ensue; letters are stolen or forged; Edmund makes love to both daughters, then is killed by his own brother in a duel; Goneril poisons Regan over jealousy then stabs herself. However, Lear and Cordelia, fighting with the French against the treacherous daughters, have been captured, and upon Edmund's previous orders are to be killed. In his death confession, against his own nature, Edmund reveals his lot, and when the others rush off to save Lear and his daughter, the old king enters carrying Cordelia's dead body. He wails at his folly and dies over her dead body.
Lear is unrelentingly gloomy, enlivened by the Fool's wit, Shakespeare's juggernaut of a plot, his brilliant psychological insights, and the high quality of the acting, all under the sterling whiplash direction of Stephanie Shine. The production is set against Stonehenge megaliths to mimic ancient Britain, by designer Jon Young, lit by Christina Giannelli as if with storm clouds, and given a lush sound and mu-sic design by Andrew Lynch. The recognition scene between Lear and Cordelia, where the sad old king regains his sanity, is punctuated by an evocative offstage piano lullaby that adds depth and emotional wallop. Afsaneh Aayani's costumes eventually grow on you, a mash of goth and sci-fi Flash Gordon. They're certainly alien looking, as befits the pagan setting.
One of HSF's most satisfying productions in seasons, Lear is tremendous theater, a blow-out of shattering family conflict, as relevant today as when it was written, c. 1604-05. If there's a moral amid the madness, perhaps it's: Don't demand to be loved; let your heart open so love can be received.
King Lear. August 5 at 8:15 p.m. with Bard Talk at 7:15 p.m. Free. For more information visit uh.edu/shakespeare/2022 or call 713-743-3388.
Tickets for covered seating are free but covered seating by the stage requires a reservation in advance. You can get your tickets online here beginning at 10 a.m., one day prior to the performance date until noon on the day of performance. You must be 16 or older to order tickets. Each person is allowed a maximum of 4 tickets. The box office, located on the northeast corner of the theater, will be open one hour before the performance starts. No late seating for the covered seats.