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Bob Goepfert Reviews "King Lear" By Saratoga Shakespeare

Rarely does anyone get “King Lear” perfect.   It’s that tough a play.  Even lavish productions with the biggest stars often fall short.  Just ask Glenda Jackson.

The abbreviated, bare-bones version of “King Lear,” offered by Saratoga Shakespeare in Congress Park is far from perfect, but it gets enough right so that you can appreciate the power of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.

The best feature of the production, which continues through Saturday, is the clear portrait of the title character.  Lear’s despair is illuminated with such clarity that it becomes synonymous with madness.

Lary Opitz creates a very human Lear.   He is a figure of power, but not a powerful figure.  This makes his portrayal very relatable.

Opitz blends the regal King Lear with the common man, Willie Loman.

Any father, daughter, or son in the audience will understand the disappointment and hurt caused by the betrayal of Lear’s daughters. Combined with Lear’s own failings, their actions collude to destroy the man.  

Another asset is that it is not uncommon for a production of “King Lear” to take almost three and a half hours.  In Congress Park, it’s two hours.  It starts at 6 p.m. and it’s over around 8 p.m.  

The brevity does create some negatives.  Characters are eliminated, sub-plots fail to be developed and the actors are often forced to quickly establish personalities. This is an effort almost totally lacking subtlety and nuance.

In Congress Park the editing deeply wounds the Edmond, Edgar and Earl of Gloucester subplot.

The lack of nuance tempts some actors to play their characters so large as to be caricatures.  

For example, Emily Raine Blythe who plays Regan and Leah Walton as Goneril, who as Lear’s ungrateful daughters are smug, shallow and obviously deceptive in the opening scene.  They are so insincere offering their flattery that Lear appears a fool to give them his kingdom. Once they gain power they become hideously and overtly cruel.   

They are so extreme in both situations, they seem a pair of Heathers, as if directed by Wes Craven.

And even Lear’s director, Wesley Broulik, who permits a lot of broad performances, takes a page from Craven’s horror films.  Broulik tries to show the violence in the work in a stylized fashion. But because he permits the characters to so relish every violent moment it will be problematic for the squeamish and certainly uncomfortable for parents of young children.

Thankfully, Opitz does not fall into the trap of overacting.  He trusts the text and finds the honesty of every moment.  His is a portrayal that is rooted in truth.   He initially shows Lear as a vain and arrogant man who makes emotional and hurtful decisions.  He is rash with his loving daughter Cordellia (sensitively played by Clara Hevia) and unfair to his loyal friend the Earl of Kent (Vivian Nesbitt).    

However, as Lear becomes increasingly out of touch with reality, Opitz finds the core of the man’s pain. Indeed, the scenes on the moor when Lear is at the depth of his despair are among the best in the play.

The staging of the moment helps.  It’s played on a small auxiliary stage in the middle of the audience, rather than on the main stage which has about 50 feet of space between it and the audience.  The staging of most of the play often distances the audience from the characters and accentuates the emotional void within the play.

One of the successes of the production is the relationship between the Fool and Lear.  David Girard does not force the relationship as he is content with observing and wisely commenting on Lear’s behavior.  The bond between the two is one of the more genuine connections in the production.

But the relationship of Lear and his Fool also defines the entire production.  

Throughout, we understand the dynamics of what is going on, but are rarely touched emotionally by the events on stage.  

“King Lear” by Saratoga Shakespeare continues at Congress Park in Saratoga Springs, NY through August 3.  It starts at 6 p.m. nightly.  It’s free and picnicking is encouraged. 

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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