The scene suggests Chekhov: Three sisters enter one after the other, their late-Edwardian dresses trailing across the floor. Their matching hats create a halo for each, and their white elbow-length opera gloves lend a statue’s purity to the women’s refined gestures. The three stand in the stateroom of their father as he stands upstage of the white velvet covered table, placing himself immediately behind a large emerald-colored vase of spring flowers on the table to begin his pronouncements. As the father addresses his three daughters, an attendant takes the vase away and his words become a little less flowery. The father speaks quickly, his white beard moving rapidly; the three sisters form a well-staged triangle equal distance from their father. Even without the words, the family dynamics between the three sisters and their father is conveyed in a series of glances, shifting stances, and fawning presentations to the patriarch. Only a longing to go to Moscow is missing.
That the three sisters are Goneril (the lovely Corinna May), Regan (a fiery Kristin Wold), and Cordelia (Kelly Galvin), and their father is the patriarch’s patriarch, King Lear (Shakespeare & Company patriarch Dennis Krausnick) makes the Chekhovian domesticity an odd choice at first blush. But as director Rebecca Holderness’ King Lear plays out, towering tragedy is foresworn for a more salon-scaled treatment of the characters’ fall. Capturing the surprising humor in a play that more often resembles Beckett’s bleakness and despair, this is a King Lear more accessible, more human, one who is isn’t “more sinned against than sinning,” as Lear says, but more given to social faux pas and fashion indiscretions.
Set in 1906 Russia, Shakespeare & Company’s 2012 version of King Lear plucks the matter of this monstrously difficult play with a time, place, and look similar to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 Ian McKellen King Lear that played for three weeks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the RSC’s four-week sojourn at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory in 2011. Both of those versions used Czarist Russia and military uniforms that suggested World War I. Shakespeare & Company’s settings and costumes are a little sparser and much more intimate than the grander stage pictures of the RSC’s productions. This production is accessible, audience-friendly, easy on the ears and eyes and soul.
Even the horror of the Duke of Gloucester’s blinding is handled with an eye to not offend or shock: Hidden behind a white sheet (white sheets stretched across the black pipe scaffolding of the Founders Theatre feature prominently here in the stage design as they would in an unused drawing room), his eyes pop, staining the clean white sheets red with all the shock of a hors d’oeuvres-serving miscue.
A strength here is Krausnick’s domesticated Lear. This is a Lear very at home in his drawing rooms; a king whose actions after banishing favorite daughter Cordelia unhinge the props of propriety and make his descent to babbling, high-pitched “lean and slipper’d pantaloon” imminently observable. That Lear is loved has no better sign than the sad empathy of Kevin G. Coleman’s Fool, who descends deep into sorrow and whose face registers all the pain, regret, and dashed hopes I would want in any production of King Lear—and too frequently never experience. As Edgar says at play’s end, “The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Director Holderness keeps the sad weight and the feeling bearably human in this King Lear.