King Lear Theatre Review - This King Lear Howls With Madness and Pride

Both Lear (Dennis Krausnick) and Edgar (Shaun Anthony) journey into madness

(Garden Grove, CA) September 3, 2010 – Pride is very much like an equilateral triangle. On one side, pride could be a reflection on our accomplishments and goals, not only in terms of our own evolution (creative, professional, spiritual), but also how it benefits our fellow human beings. On the second side of the “Pride Triangle”, this behavior could be a reflection of satisfying one’s curiosity regarding certain types of knowledge (usually dealing with varying forms of philosophy and ethics) in order to help with that previously stated evolution. And if the person involved doesn’t become obsessed in that quest, the end result is just as benign as the first facet of pride.

However, we now come to the third side of pride, the one that is usually on the bottom of the triangle, the deadly sin that always leads to the downfall of the human condition. It’s the mindset that “my way is the best way” and be damned what others think. And it’s a kind of arrogant behavior that not only destroys the person involved, but others as well. To an ordinary average individual, this is truly a tragedy. But if this happens to a person in charge of a country---a person whose own arrogance and self-interests take total control, then that leader’s pride results in unfathomable disaster, especially for the people he has sworn to protect and, especially, serve. This downfall resulting from pride is, unfortunately, timeless in its portrayal, whether it’s regarding current events or when it’s related to Shakespearean Pre-Christian Britain. And a critically acclaimed theatre troupe in Orange County has accomplished its mission in illustrating how a man’s pride leads to the downfall of his rule and his family in their 2010 Season Finale of King Lear. Director Thomas F. Bradac and his talented cast at Shakespeare Orange County elevate this complex epic about betrayal and pride to uncanny levels of theatrical brilliance.

Lear (Dennis Krausnick) suffers betrayal as his fool (Alyssa Bradac) looks on

King Lear ( Dennis Krausnick), aged and weary, has made his final order as ruler of Britain: to abdicate his throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters: the elder Goneril ( Evelyn Carol Case), Regan ( Kim Shively), and the youngest and most benevolent Cordelia (a radiantly elegant Marissa Pistone). The only stipulation is that all three daughters must proclaim their infinite levels of their love for Lear. Goneril and Regan do so with saccharine glee, but Cordelia refuses to declare her love for her father into mere words. And by doing so publicly in court, Lear’s vanity is injured to where he banishes his own daughter to France, as well as his best friend The Earl of Kent ( Carl Reggiardo) for defending Cordelia. These series of events result in Edmund ( Ryan Shively), the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester ( Michael Nehring), to frame his half brother Edgar ( Shaun Anthony) into exile as well. And by doing so, he plans and spins a web of deceit with the two daughters of Lear in order to be the new ruler of England.

King Lear is not only one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, but its epic scope in terms of the side stories is also one of the most complex. It takes a skilled director to condense and distill all the essential elements of the play without losing the dramatical impact. And Director Thomas F. Bradac masterfully accomplishes what is possibly the best production that Shakespeare Orange County has presented in years. The flow between the play’s transitions and acts are smooth and quick without being hurried. Considering the tragic themes and the denseness of  The Bard's poetics, a production of Lear would drag in less qualified hands. But Bradac succeeds in keeping the audience at the edge of their seats, waiting to find out what happens next.

The banished Lear (Dennis Krausnick) and the blinded Gloucester (Michael Nehring)

As with Hamlet, Richard III, and Henry V, King Lear is a type of role where if you do not have a powerful actor in the lead, the rest of the play will flounder, no matter how good the rest of the cast is (the best example being Hamlet at the South Coast Repertory several years ago). Fortunately, veteran actor, director, trainer, and Massachusetts transplant Dennis Krausnick more than portrays the role in Lear; he practically inhabits it like the animal furs he wears during his scenes of madness. In the beginning of the play, Krausnick exudes vanity and arrogance disguised by regal charisma and charm. And at the end of the play, when his pride leads him to his downfall, his pain while seeking redemption from Cordelia and Kent, as well as the tragedy at the very end of the play, is truly heartbreaking. However, the essential transition from Lear’s arrogance to his ultimate humility is when Goneril’s and Regan’s betrayal leads to the King’s madness, and it is here that unfortunately Krausnick doesn’t quite tap into the full essence of the character. This is, without a doubt, NOT due to lack of skill, and Krausnick’s naturalistic performance throughout the rest of the play is proof of it. But when Goneril rejects her father, this should be only the first step to Lear’s madness of emasculation as a ruler, father, and even a man. But Krausnick immediately leaps into the rage and madness without a slow rising action that is needed; he still has to encounter Regan’s treachery later in the play. And by hitting that plateau so early, Krausnick has no where else to go but stay at that same level of madness---yelling, raising his fists in the sky, running around in a loin cloth---until that point where he realizes the consequences of his actions. The only saving grace to this lack of transition is the chemistry with his co-stars, including Kent and Edgar (more on them later), Cordelia, the blind Gloucester---whose own pride has led to his defeat (a sympathetic portrayal by Michael Nehring), and especially Lear’s fond friendship to his wise fool (a hilarious and witty Alyssa Bradac). But the role of Lear is the most complex next to Hamlet; it’s a difficult task to reign in that energy for its release at the right time. Overall, Krausnick’s performance is truly artful and hopefully as the run continues, he can pace himself where the complexity of Lear’s descent into madness, then his redemption, can be witnessed in its fullest glory.

The entire supporting cast is flawless, especially the most ragtag band of antagonists that has ever existed on the same Shakespearean stage. Case’s Goneril and Shively’s Regan are like Cinderella’s evil stepsisters ramped up on venomous steroids. These two exude such pure malevolance in terms of their abandonment of their father. Case is the alpha female to Shively’s beta, and Case has the presence of a vicious lion that would devour her children without a second thought in order to gain power to the throne. Shively’s strikingly beautiful Regan hides a shrewdness that leads her to betray her own equally vile husband, Cornwall (portrayed by Greg Ungar, whose cropped hair style magnifies his eel-like personality even more). And although Ryan Shively’s Edmund is a calculating monster, his charm matches that of two other famous Shakespearean villains: Richard III and Iago. At times, when Edmund seduces and betrays both Regan and Goneril, we cannot help but cheer him on. It isn’t until his actions affect the innocent, especially Edgar and Cordelia, that his evil is purely disturbing and Shively does an excellent job in showing the many facets to this villain.

The Fallen King (Dennis Krausnick) seeks forgiveness from his daughter Cordelia (Marissa Pistone)and his best friend Kent (Carl Reggiardo, far right)

However, two performances that stand out equaling Krausnick are Reggiardo’s Kent and Anthony’s Edgar. What is interesting is both performers really demonstrate their versatility the moment they are exiled by Lear. Anthony has the presence of a leading man of royalty. But the moment he’s exiled and has to feign insanity to enhance his disguise, his transformation into the beggar “Poor Tom” is nothing short of incredible. With his face smeared with mud and dressed only in a loin cloth, Anthony’s Edgar is a mirror image of Krausnick’s Lear in terms of how “The Dark Night of the Soul” can test one’s sanity. Anthony’s ability to transcend such emotional levels helps Krausnick during Lear’s breakdown. A fine, talented actor at A Noise Within (especially his entertaining performance in Noises Off), Anthony is a fresh new face at Shakespeare Orange County, and hopefully, it won’t be his last appearance at the amphitheatre.

But the biggest eye opener was Carl Reggiardo’s exiled Earl of Kent. This Founding Member of SOC has consistently been giving wonderful performances. But for the last few years, the vitality that has been the driving force of his repertoire has been notably lagging. However, with his Kent, Reggiardo once again demonstrates his multifaceted skills as a trained and potent actor. In the beginning, he exudes courage when confronting Lear, but he keeps it controlled where he doesn’t show disrespect to his friend and monarch. When exiled, Reggiardo immerses himself as a one eyed beggar who gains Lear’s trust, albeit under disguise. He also demonstrates a sharp toothed wit and physical comedy against those who mock Lear, most notably Goneril’s lackey Oswald (a delightful Jeremy Schaeg). And throughout the entire play, Reggiardo’s eloquence of The Bard’s poetry is profound, touching, and powerful, matched only by Dennis Krausnick. And it is evident that he is having fun with his character’s journey, just like all the other actors in Shakespeare Orange County’s production of King Lear. And considering the themes involved, the show has accomplished its goal in presenting an entertaining epic that will stay with the audience long after the curtain call.

King Lear opened September 3 and runs to September 18.

Tickets: $32---714-590-1575

Shakespeare Orange County

The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA

Photos by: Mark Samala

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