It’s been quite a few years since I’ve hung out with my old pal “King Lear,” and it’s nice to know he’s as mentally unstable and making the same bad decisions as ever. Theatre Ventoux offers a scrappy production of Shakespeare’s famed tale of hubris and filial ingratitude at the Fresno Soap Co., a tiny venue in which you sit so close you can see the actors’ pores.
Director Broderic Beard, working with a group of 10 diligent actors, offers a stripped-down version of the tragedy, with a bare stage and muted costumes giving the production a barren and parched feel, not unlike what I imagine the state of Lear’s muddled mind.
Greg Taber tackles the title role with at times a wonderfully stated subtlety. (At one point his character closes his eyes for a lengthy moment, and you wonder if he’s drifted off to sleep standing up.) I’ve always thought that one of the most terrifying things in the world would be to come to the slow realization that your brain isn’t working as it should, and it’s this high-anxiety tightrope act that Taber is particularly good at portraying. “I will not be mad,” Lear proclaims, even as we — and he — know the direction things are going.
Shakespeare calls for Lear to fly into several almost obscene rages, particularly when he starts to realize that his ridiculous plan to divide his kingdom among the daughters who “love” him most starts to collapse, and Taber tackles these moments with gusto as well. As an audience member, I wanted more modulation in these outbursts, more “levels” of emotional eruptions. It’s as if his performance burns too hot, too long, especially given the size of the venue. Still, by the end of the play (and this might be considered a spoiler), when the king is reduced to pretty much a mere puddle of a man, Taber triggered in me a sense not only of pity but also irritation, as I watched what must have been at one time a proud, regal character regress to an almost infant-like state.
And then I thought: Irritating me could be a good thing. It means that Taber broke through the expected and provoked me to a visceral response.
Several performances deserve shout-outs: Jessica Reedy is stern and strong as Gloucester, whose judgment involving his children is as bad as Lear’s. Dylan Hardcastle brings a soft, smarmy underbelly to Edmund (Gloucester’s bastard son). James Anderson offers an earnest spark as the loyal Kent. And in a memorable performance, Kayla M. Weber is fierce and complicated as the conniving daughter Regan. (I was quite taken with the moment she tells her father, simply, “You’re old.”)
On the technical side, Beard’s lighting design is impressive given his resources. And Josh Taber’s thoughtful “Soundscape” accompaniment (often underscoring the dialogue) offers a moody musical ambiance.
As a director, one of the challenges of presenting a minimalist “Lear” is keeping up with the machinations of the plot, which includes lots of political intrigue and shifting alliances. (And ultimately, dead bodies.) Yes, I got lost at times. This is one of those times when, frankly, a plot synopsis is helpful for the audience, particularly in a condensed and altered show. From a dramaturgical standpoint, the final few minutes of this “Lear” wobble as Beard tries to wrap things up.
Still, there’s something special about getting to experience raw human emotion just feet away from you, live, instead of on a big-screen TV. As of this writing, two performances of “King Lear” remain. And then, unlike Netflix, it goes away forever.
“King Lear,” 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, Fresno Soap Co., 1470 N. Van Ness Ave. Suggested donation is $10, but all performances have a Pay What You Will policy.
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