The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s production of King Lear opened last weekend. King Lear, considered one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies, starts with an ill-conceived brownnosing competition and ends, unsurprisingly, in death. Lots and lots of death.
In Act I, King Lear (Timothy Otte) decides to step down from being the official king and decides to distribute his land among his daughters according to how sycophantic they can be. When his favorite daughter Cordelia (Allison Schneider ’13) refuses to play ball, he banishes her to France, instead bestowing large gifts of estate to his other daughters, Regan (Rachel Williams) and Goneril (Mali MacConnell), which inevitably sets him up for disappointment when it turns out that they don’t love quite as much as they claimed.
Elsewhere, bastard son Edmund (Chris Smith ’12) tries to scheme his way into the inheritance and title of legitimate son Edgar (Zach Tribbett ’12) in the vein of the long Shakespearean tradition of having bastards be bastards. From there, things go downhill and uphill (mostly downhill) until the end of the play. It’s not Shakespeare’s most downbeat ending, but it’s pretty close.
The acting in Lear is something of a mixed bag, with Ensemble veterans, newcomers, and outsiders all putting forth compelling performances. Of special note were the three princesses played by Schneider, Williams, and MacConnell. Williams and MacConnell are believably devious and unlikeable, in spite of a small early dose of sympathy in light of the demands of their father.
Schneider, for her comparatively brief stage time, along with Otte as King Lear, manage to create a quaintly stoic ray of hope in the last act, shortly before it’s snuffed out.
Tribbett and Smith as the two mortally opposed brothers were the highlights of the show for me. Both familiar faces in Ensemble shows, Tribbett and Smith proved convincing and engaging. Tribbett in particular takes on two very challenging roles, one of which requires him to traipse around the stage in a state of near-nudity, raving like a madman, all challenges that he takes on with verve.
The play itself is surprisingly long, in the vicinity of three-and-a-half hours, and the first half is somewhat slow to get started. However, the post-intermission half of the play more than compensates for any expository sluggishness with phenomenal action sequences. The latter acts of the play contain a staff fight, a very unsettling but engaging eye-gouging scene, a climactic sword-and-dagger fight, and many, many stabbings. If you’ re a fan of both Shakespeare and Tarantino, I would recommend seeing King Lear on the basis of the fight scenes alone. Even if you’re not, the story is emotionally involving and the cast is full of talented performances worth seeing, if you’ve got an evening free.