Trinity Rep’s superb King Lear

A triumphant tragedy
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 19, 2012

PLAYING FAVORITES McEleney and Siegworth in King Lear.

It's not a new thing, the complications of elder care. As Shakespeare pointed out, the ill-advised handling of a cranky parent can even end with a stage littered with bodies. For anyone who hasn't yet witnessed the tragedy of King Lear, you're in luck. You can see a definitive version at Trinity Rep (through October 21), a superb accomplishment exquisitely performed in the title role by Brian McEleney and skillfully directed by Kevin Moriarty.

A throne-like chair stands alone on the stage at the opening, emphasizing the self-inflicted abandonment of the British king. Not a moment is wasted in establishing his plight — in the first scene, he announces that he will distribute his kingdom to his three daughters, with the unspoken understanding that they will care for him in his regal retirement.

But the fatally egocentric king poses a little kowtow contest: the largest portion will go to the daughter who convinces him she loves him the most. Eldest child Goneril (Christie Vela) and Regan (Angela Brazil) compete in exaggerating their affection, but his youngest, Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth), resists. Shakespeare strains credibility for the sake of drama: Lear loves her the most, but when he asks "what can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?" she responds, "Nothing, my lord."

Not wanting to be a hypocrite, she says that she loves him "according to my bond, no more nor less." Not the words of a likely heiress. Predictably, the two honey-tongued daughters neglect him and eventually cast out the obstreperous old man. We don't see Cordelia again until Act Two, when she returns from France with an army, by which time her father has been driven mad by the treachery.

The most remarkable thing about McEleney's riveting take on Lear is that it's simultaneously subtle and a series of full-blown explosions. It didn't occur to me until the second half that he was shouting most of his lines in the first half; every outburst was so carefully modulated to the experience of the exasperated king that the accumulation didn't come across as strident. (Since he's playing an octogenarian, McEleney can be forgiven for having another character heft the tall Siegworth's Cordelia onto the stage at the end instead of his Lear doing so, as Shakespeare wished. Actors' Equity rules probably proscribe heavy lifting.)

With all the hand-rubbing mayhem, comic relief was never more needed, so Lear is ably aided and contrasted by Stephen Berenson as the Fool (in plaid pants and matching bowtie for motley). Another sort of needed foil is the Earl of Kent (Hassan El-Amin), who infuriates Lear at the outset by trying to reason with him about his mistreatment of Cordelia and is banished for his pains. He remains loyal nevertheless, returning to serve Lear in disguise (a watchcap is just about all it takes, in the Shakespeare tradition of convenient obliviousness).

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