King Lear: When comedy meets tragedy

Shakespeare’s King Lear is full of madness, plotting, torture, and death, bringing both comedy and tragedy together to the stage. In last week’s presentation of King Lear by the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre, the actors effectively portrayed Shakespeare’s characters in madness and anger.

In King Lear, the title character (Dakin Matthews) is old and unable to rule his kingdom. In an act of poor judgment, he tells his daughters to tell him how much they love him, and in return they will be awarded a portion of the kingdom to rule. Two of his daughters, Goneril (Helena Ruoti) and Regan (Robin Walsh), adequately display their love to Lear through words, pleasing him and gaining their shares of the kingdom. His youngest daughter, Cordelia (Karen Baum), believes that her actions speak more strongly than words, and does not flatter her father, resulting in her banishment and an arranged marriage to the king of France.

Lear is left in the care of his two eldest daughters, who try to suppress and control him. Lear begins to go mad and leaves both of his daughters, instead wandering the country. His courtier and friend, the Earl of Gloucester (Larry John Meyers), continues to support Lear even after his daughters abandon him and forbid Gloucester to help him, resulting in the gouging of his eyes when he refuses to leave Lear to wander on his own in the rain.

Meanwhile, Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar (David Whalen), is framed by his illegitimate half-brother, Edmund (Paul Todaro), for wanting to kill Gloucester. Edgar, following Edmund’s advice and not knowing his half-brother’s malicious intentions, disguises himself as a mad beggar who ends up traveling with King Lear and, at times, his own father, who does not recognize him.

Through plotting and intrigue by Lear’s daughters and their husbands, tragedy befalls many of the characters, and as with Shakespeare’s other tragedies, a majority of the main cast dies at the conclusion of the play. Edmund sends Lear and Cordelia to prison, ordering their deaths. Only Cordelia is killed, however, as Lear kills her murderer. Edgar joins Edmund on stage, informing him that their father, Gloucester, has died. Edgar and Edmund duel, resulting in Edmund’s death, and while they duel, Goneril poisons Regan, then kills herself. Lear brings Cordelia’s body out to the audience and the remaining characters and, after learning that all three of his daughters are dead, he dies.

The Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre’s presentation of King Lear was extremely successful in keeping true to Shakespeare’s work. The set was very limited and sparse, not at all like modern productions with an excess of props and scenery. The stage was bare except for a round platform and two structures that looked like stone walls behind it, which also served the purpose of providing an entry and exit point from the stage.

At times, the setting was enhanced by props like tables, chairs, and blankets, which were carried on and off by members of the cast. The production made use of the king’s attendants as stagehands and musicians as well, with many of the attendants occasionally drumming during the play. Beyond the drums, however, there was very little musical accompaniment through the play. Costumes were also very simple, rarely changing throughout the course of the play.

The simple production allowed the audience to get a feeling of what an early performance of Shakespeare’s work would be like. Had the play been more elaborate in terms of costume and set, it might not have been quite as good. There were two effects during the storm, however, that were unique and positively contributed to the play. When Lear was caught in the storm, an overhead sprinkler actually rained on him and created mud on the platform, which was covered in a thin layer of dirt. In addition, three sheets of metal were used to create the effect of thunder in conjunction with the drums, making the storm scene more real.

The use of dirt on the floor was also a unique addition to the set. Characters were able to use it as a source of makeup and to make the scene look more like a dusty old castle. At the beginning, a map is thrown on the floor for Lear when he divides his kingdom, causing a cloud of dust to form. The platform was also used for both indoor and outdoor scenes, and the ability of the characters to get a little dirty when outside made it seem less like a staged performance.
Perhaps the most unique effect was the blood. Any time someone needed to bleed, such as after a duel or a fight, an attendant would quickly run up to the character, throw a bucket (the size varied depending upon the injury) of fake blood onto that character, and quickly run back to his position at the outside of the platform. While this method was amusing at first, it later faded into the background as the action took the spotlight and the appearance of blood was no longer surprising, but rather expected.

In terms of acting, the cast was very talented. Matthews’ portrayal of Lear’s madness was very believable, and the ways in which he acted allowed for an element of humor to be incorporated into the tragedy. For example, in one scene, he holds a fake trial for his daughters. He instructs Kent (Matt DeCaro), the fool (Simon Bradbury), and Edgar to be the panel of judges. Because Lear, the fool, and Edgar are all either mad or pretending to be mad, the scene is full of hilarity.
The plotting daughters and their husbands were also very good actors, changing their attitudes depending upon the situation and whom they were with. For example, the Duke of Cornwall (Mark D. Staley) was able to be civil to the king even after putting Kent in the stocks and gouging out Gloucester’s eyes.

Overall, this presentation of King Lear was unique and created both a sense of comedy and of tragedy. The creative but simple effects gave the feel of an authentic presentation of the play, and the cast of great actors made King Lear extremely successful.