Pasadena’s A Noise Within celebrates its 25th year (and its fifth in Pasadena, after 20 years in Glendale) with a particularly effective and timely rendition of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy, King Lear. Their choice to dress the players in 1940s era costume makes the action more immediate, contemporary, and unflinchingly political, bringing to mind the Netflix hit series House of Cards. (Why anyone would choose to present a play about a mentally unstable narcissist in a position of power and the ways his capricious decisions result in enormous suffering for everyone around him in 2017, that’s anybody’s guess.)
For those of you who goofed off in high school English, here’s the setup: When aging Lear (Geoff Eliot) decides to divide his kingdom between his daughters, Goneril (Trisha Miller), Regan (Arie Thompson), and Cordelia (Erika Soto), some of his followers are concerned; when he chooses to allocate their shares based on which one best flatters him, tensions escalate, especially when youngest daughter Cordelia chooses to opt out of the game, which earns her an immediate banishment. In the tumult that follows, bad people scheme, good people are mistreated, plots are carried out, loyal allies go in disguise, spouses are cheated on, eyes gouged out, and (spoiler alert) damn near everybody dies, and most of them have it coming.
As is usually the case with Shakespeare, especially with good productions, the plot is of secondary importance; what matters are the characters and how they relate to one another. In this case, the characters are fascinating, every actor bringing something unexpected to their role. Eliot’s Lear goes from imposing king of all he surveys to delusional vagabond traipsing through the wood in his underwear to painfully broken man in the throes of dementia; along the way he makes us forgive the king his rash impulses as we watch him pay dearly for each of them.
Lear’s daughters are distinctly different women, Miller’s Goneril a steely ice queen who dominates her clueless husband, the Duke of Albany (Christopher Franciosa), while Thompson’s Regan takes a more veiled approach to her agenda. Her violent husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeremy Rabb) prefers brute force to diplomacy. Soto’s Cordelia is sweet and sincere, devastated by her father’s rejection, returning as a strong and decisive leader marching to her father’s rescue, until she once again becomes a little girl in his arms before the brutal denouement.
The second family entangled in Lear’s inevitable descent into madness is the house of Gloucester; the Earl (Apollo Dukakis) is a genial man utterly oblivious to the impact his casual joking about his illegitimate son’s origin is having. “The bastard” (and boy is he) Edmund (Freddy Douglas) may burn with resentment, but his revenge is coldly calculated and directed toward his unsuspecting brother, the laid-back Edgar (Rafael Goldstein). In the process, he gets entangled in the schemes of Lear’s daughters.
The ever-loyal Earl of Kent (Stephen Weingartner), banished for trying to talk Lear out of his foolish plan, returns in disguise as a surly one-eyed Irishman named Caius, who joins Lear’s entourage as a servant. Of course, the hero in disguise is one of Shakespeare’s favorite tropes, one that actors relish because of the range it allows, and Weingartner’s Caius is so distinct from Kent that he convinces us that he could actually fool Lear and his associates into not recognizing him, and invests both with a solid earnestness that serves the character well.
Another of Shakespeare’s favorite tropes is the “wise fool,” the jester who is the only one who can speak the truth, because he wraps it in jokes. Usually, the Fool is played as a Robin Williams character, full of rueful whimsy, who gets away with his pointed barbs by being genuinely funny, but Kasey Mahaffy takes a much different approach; his Fool is your bitchy gay friend who can say anything to anyone and get away with it because he’s just that outrageous. He sings and dances his stinging rebukes to the king and practically dares the old man to take offense, and it’s a marvelous performance.
Director Julia Rodriguez-Eliot presents the action on a bare gray stage with only minimal props, effectively creating a variety of locales through the judicious use of furniture, lighting, and projections on the spacious rear wall, which also features elevated openings through which actors sometimes enter and exit. The costumes by Angela Balogh Calin are deceptively simple, the men wearing military uniforms, the women in approximately WWII era upper-class dresses and coats, which adds an immediacy and political subtext to a deeply emotional and personal family tragedy, emphasizing the fact that when prominent and powerful people succumb to their weaknesses, it impacts a lot more than just their own family. Amazingly, the production gets this message across without ever overtly doing anything to evoke or reference any current political figures or events.
King Lear runs in rotating repertory with Eugene O’Neil’s Ah, Wilderness and Man of La Mancha through May 6.
Photos by Craig Schwartz