King Lear by The Nashville Shakespeare Festival, at Belmont University’s Troutt Theatre, Nashville, TN
Reviewed by Amy W. Grubbs
For over twenty-seven years the Nashville Shakespeare Festival has been bringing professional productions of Shakespeare to middle Tennessee. They offer a free production at the end of summer in Nashville’s beautiful Centennial Park and a winter performance that tours to local schools. I recently moved to Nashville and enjoyed the community-feel of NSF’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Henry V that ran this past summer. This January, I got my first chance to see a winter production, King Lear.
NFS’s King Lear was presented in Belmont University’s Troutt Theatre; an intimate space with proscenium stage and modern lighting. Director Denice Hicks took full advantage of the technical elements this space offers to create the play’s atmosphere. Indeed, if there were only one word to describe this production, it would be “atmospheric”. The play began with a map of England as well as coats of arms and crests associated with various characters projected on the stage. It began with dim lighting, and with music director/composer Rolin Main’s happy, but not light, medieval-sounding music. The actors walked on stage in June Kingsbury’s gorgeous costumes and began the play in a dance – a preview of the sometimes affected acting that would follow. Throughout the play, set pieces moved and music and lights transitioned to establish not only the physical atmosphere – the locations of different castles and heaths – but also the emotional atmosphere. The result was a performance that relied more upon the technical elements of production than upon the power of Shakespeare’s dialogue to shape individual interactions and to disclose internal struggles.
That is not to say that the technical elements always harmed the production. Anne Willingham, the lighting designer, used lighting quite effectively to establish the time, place, weather, and emotional weight of various scenes. Occasionally, however, these technical elements did overshadow the dialogue. It was almost as if Hicks was afraid that we, the audience, would not understand the plot, and so used lighting and sound to signal the various emotions we were supposed to feel. Indeed, occasionally Mains’ music (sometimes sweeping melodies, sometimes military drum beats) almost entirely drowned out the actors’ voices.
This was a shame because the play was, overall, well cast. I especially enjoyed Matt Garner’s sincere, energetic, and thoughtful performance as Edgar. He, more than anyone else on stage, was in the world of the play – reacting with honesty to the situations Shakespeare gave him. He also handled Shakespeare’s language (both verse and prose) well: quickly and clearly yet with a nice recognition both of rhythm and of operative words. Shannon Hoppe as Regan also stood out. She was comfortable on stage and with the language and so stole almost every scene she was in. Equally as comfortable on stage, if a little shaky with the iambic pentameter, was Amanda Card as a Cordelia that was both strong and kind. As the second half of the play got underway, I also enjoyed performances by David Compton as Kent and Brian Webb Russell as Gloucester. After a first half warm-up, they each gave subtle yet moving performances. Becky Wahlstrom also gave a valiant performance of the ever-complex Fool. Some actors (especially, and surprisingly, text coach Santiago Sosa (Edmund)) used lots of hand motions and exaggerated facial and body movements as if they did not trust the text to tell the story. Sosa, for example, took great pains to show the audience that he was smiling behind his father’s back and frowning in front of his face. Occasionally, actors also dropped the extra “ed” syllables needed to fulfill the iambic pentameter line. It is possible the Nashville Shakespeare Festival made this choice in an attempt to keep the language from sounding too ‘foreign’. Either way, combined with the music and lighting cues to signal emotion, the verse work suggests the NSF had little trust in the text itself.
This lack of trust in the text seemed especially evident in the placement of the intermission. Placed so that the second half began with Lear’s famous “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” monologue, the intermission took us out of the middle of the storm and therefore out of an emotional connection with the characters during a pivotal point in the play. If I was still easing into the second half, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for David Landon (Lear) to begin with such a running start. Overall, though, David Landon held the role of Lear with a competence one might expect of a seasoned actor and theatre professor (in his “final year of teaching at Sewanee where he is the Bishop Frank A. Juhan professor of Theatre Arts” according to the program). However, there were times when it seemed Landon himself, rather than his character, was searching his brain for the right words to say or the correct movement to make. Indeed, I got the distinct feeling that many actors were more concerned with getting through a scene than they were with listening and reacting to each other.
The result is that the tremendous emotional journey of King Lear’s characters fell a bit flat. But this flatness was, perhaps, intentional. The final moments of the play saw Lear and Cordelia rise and dance together as they had done at the very beginning of the play. Knowing that the text ends with the stage direction “Exeunt, with a dead march”, this dance gave the production an unexpected sense of hope – even joy. When the rest of the cast joined in, it felt almost like a comedy: instead of a stage full of dead people, the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production ended with family and society restored and dancing on stage. This final image was a mirror to the show’s first image of medieval dancers (two halves of the same egg) and offered us one last moment in the production’s beautiful, if slightly affected, atmosphere.