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Arts & Culture

“King Lear” With Christopher Lloyd At Shakespeare & Company Notoriously Bad

Jonathan Epstein, Jennie M. Jadow, and Christopher Lloyd  King Lear, 2021
Katie McKellick
Shakespeare & Company
Jonathan Epstein, Jennie M. Jadow, and Christopher Lloyd King Lear, 2021

It was a bright and sunny beginning for the opening night of Shakespeare & Company’s production of King Lear. Sitting in the new outdoor 540-seat New Spruce Theater on the company’s grounds in Lenox, MA, the warming sun made for a spirit of optimism. It was the first live show by the company since 2019.

“King Lear” is, arguably, Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. It stars Christopher Lloyd in the title role. Lloyd is perhaps best known for his portrayals of Doc Brown in the “Back to the Future” film trilogy and Uncle Fester in two Addams Family films. A great play with a well-known actor promised an evening to remember.

From the opening lines it was obvious that Lloyd was unprepared for the task ahead. The pace was tedious, the performers stiff and the words were slurred. It was a dark, dreary opening that bode no good.

Soon the weather matched the tone of the play. As should be expected by anyone familiar with weather in the Berkshires, within an hour a thunderstorm struck and stopped the production.

I hate to admit this, but I was very happy. I thought cancelling the performance would free me from writing an extremely negative review of a great play and a company who has earned a national reputation for their excellent interpretations of Shakespeare’s works.

Most of all I would not have to describe Lloyd’s lifeless, robotic performance to many people who are fond of the man because of his lovable, eccentric film and television roles.

And, too, I admired the actor’s willingness to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most complex and difficult roles at the age of 82.

However, the decision was made to continue the production in the Tina Packer Playhouse. Things did not improve inside. Indeed, it added another 40 minutes to a production making the experience almost three and a half hours in length.

There is a temptation to consider Lloyd’s age and the abrupt change in venue when evaluating the production. However, Lloyd initially agreed to the role, about two years ago. It was originally scheduled for the 2020 season – which was cancelled. This means the actor has had at least 18 months to prepare for the role or, if finding it too demanding - pull out. His lack of preparation was demonstrated by his needing help from a prompter in at least two places.

As for the different space, my assumption is a lot of rehearsing was done there. So, the inside blocking might not be totally unfamiliar to the actors.

It was not only Lloyd’s memorization that was a problem. Missing from his performance was any sense of character. Neither Lloyd, his supporting cast, or the audience had any sense of who Lear was. The night consisted of watching a man recite lines without emotion or understanding of the events propelling the character to madness.

Few characters in literature must project a steeper emotional decline. Lear starts as an all-powerful arrogant ruler who disinherits a loving daughter because she will not fawn and flatter him, as does her two scheming sisters. He ends up a man who learns the value of what is important in life after he spends a night of madness trapped in a storm on the moors. Between those two moments he loses his kingdom, his dignity and the lives of his children.

In the cast are some of Shakespeare & Company’s finest actors. I’ve seen Jonathan Epstein in about 50 roles over the past 30 years, including playing the Earl of Kent in a 1992 production of “King Lear.” He plays the same role in this production, and I’ve never seen this brilliant actor so disengaged. The same is true of the always reliable Nigel Gore as Gloucester.

Thankfully, a poor performance by either man is still better than a performance of an average actor – which describes the rest of the cast. This is a sub-par effort by almost everyone in the company. No performer is impressive, and everyone is uncomfortable in manner and speech.

The subplot between the daughter Regan and Goneril with the evil Edmund lacks sexual tension, logic or passion. The scenes on the moor with Edmund, which should be the most vivid and heartbreaking in the show, like everything else in the production lack tension and impact.

Director Nicole Ricciardi has, in the past, shaped many successful works at Shakespeare & Company. However, this production lacks cohesion, power, emotion and intelligence.

This production might be the Berkshires‘ version of “Moose Murders” a production that ran for one night on Broadway, and was so notoriously bad, people regret not having seen it.

If you have a touch of the masochist in you, “King Lear” continues through August 28,Tuesdays through Saturdays. Note performances are at 5:30 in July; 5 p.m. in August. For tickets go to Shakespeare.org or call 413-637-3353

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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