In the attic of a West End Avenue church the scope of human tragedy plays out. Nashville Stagecraft, a budding company led by young theater artists, has renovated Shakespeare’s tragic King Lear, sprucing the old play up a bit with crisp structure that includes a concise storyline with clearer dialogue and a shorter character list titled The Mad King Lear.
Renovator and company Artistic Director JP Schuffman has done a fine job of cutting away all that is not needed for this Lear. In the 4th Story Theater space at West End United Methodist Church Nashville Stagecraft presents a more approachable but no less tragic view of the glories and failings of human nature. Schuffman approaches his changes with a Hollywood screenwriter’s sensibilities (but without those cranky studios and producers). He has stripped away much of what stood between today’s theatergoer and the story, paring down the list of characters, rendering Lear’s sons-in-law personae non gratae; there are no suitors, no husbands, no dukes and earls, save Gloucester remaining with the others to carry the tale to its inevitable end.
I had feelings of trepidation before seeing this show: To use the modern nomenclature, “one does not simply muck about with Shakespeare,” particularly if one is young and comparatively inexperienced, no matter how clever. When the play in question is King Lear, to quote George Bernard Shaw, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”
Shaw would hopefully have little complaint with this update; with the court intrigue all but gone and the cast limited to a few iconic characters, the tragedy of Lear is more poignant and more pointed while no less morose. Lear is really a story of families, Lear’s family and Gloucester’s, each destroying itself with human folly.
A family epic of the sort that might today be a Southern Gothic, The Mad King Lear plays on a simple set in modern costume. The presentation essentially says “Lear is the tale of the world, the story of all mankind. Look there! Look!”
For the uninitiated the story is based on the ancient tale of Leir, legendary king of the Britons, who abdicated his throne near death, dividing his kingdom among three daughters. In Shakespeare’s versions (one published in quarto in 1608 and the other posthumously in 1623’s First Folio), the youngest daughter fails the king’s test and vows to seek justice not only for herself but for her dying father.
Lear, played by Phil Brady, is an inciting incident and a window on the soul as much as he’s a living character. The view through that window is one of spite and malice, and the panes themselves are tinted with arrogance and self-interest. Daughters Goneril (Heather Alexander), Regan (Tiana Turner) and Cordelia (Sara Gaddis) remind us of the wicked step-sisters and Cinderella.
Lear’s dear friend and ally, The Earl of Gloucester (Tony Shannon) and his sons Edgar (Kin Sullivan) and the bastard Edmund (Kyle Marler), remain integral to the action, and in their own way reflect the old king’s failings back on him.
But of course, Lear’s real mirror is the Fool (Jolinda Bech). A ubiquitous archetype in Western theater long before Shakespeare’s time, the Bard used the Fool as a foil to Lear’s pride, arrogance and madness.
With Brady’s Lear so very manic and pale, and the Fool so clever and animated, the rest of the cast still manages to shine. Particularly rewarding are Gloucester’s sons Edmund the bastard, a bombastic and villainous tempest, and Edgar, who swings wildly from dejection and ruin to explosive action; Marler and Sullivan nail their sibling rivalry and create heavy tension with their oppositional acting styles. Goneril’s willful greed, Regan’s foul narcissism, and Cordelia’s honor are soundly portrayed by Alexander, Turner and Gaddis.
In the end, Schuffman’s adaptation maintains Shakespeare’s grim resolution with most of the characters dead (I don’t feel the “no spoiler in the review” rule applies for this 400-year-old work). If you really know the Bard’s great tragedy you might miss your favorite bit in The Mad King Lear, and one or two of the rewritten lines ring a little too modern, but the bulk of Nashville Stagecraft’s changes are effective, and indeed welcome, for those wish to enjoy Shakespeare without studying him.
The Mad King Lear runs through April 12 in the 4th Story Theatre at West End United Methodist Church (2200 West End Ave.) at 7:00 p.m. with Saturday matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets are available online by clicking here. In addition to their website check out their Facebook page as well.
RELATED STORY – Theater Preview: Nashville Stagecraft Renovates Bard’s ‘Lear’
*Photos by JP Schuffman courtesy Nashville Stagecraft.