Theater Review: McEleney Triumphs in Trinity’s King Lear

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


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Brian McEleney is triumphant as King Lear in Trinity Rep's new co-production with Dallas Theater Center. Stephen Berenson tends to him as the Fool. Photo: Mark Turek.

As a nation's fate is tied to the strength of its sovereign, so a play about a king stands or falls on who plays him. And Trinity Rep's production of Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece King Lear stands tall indeed, borne on the sinewy shoulders of Brian McEleney, who turns in a moving, bravura performance in the leading role. Complemented by a cadre of fine actors from Dallas Theater Center in supporting roles, and ambitiously staged and beautifully directed by Kevin Moriarty, this is Trinity's greatest artistic achievement in years.

King Lear

It begins, as it must, with Lear. King Lear is both a career's prize and potential catastrophe for any actor, for the role charts an emotional course that originates in frailty, swerves to anger, climaxes in madness and collapses in humility. The gifts of the play's unequaled poetry must be painstakingly opened, the spaces between the layers of thought exposed, to allow the audience to follow the king's changes of mind and heart. Finally, the actor playing Lear must show us what a King is, so we may witness what is stripped away by antagonists, by Nature, and finally, by his own mind.

Within moments of taking the stage at the intimate Dowling Theater, McEleney, his hair cropped close, his gaunt face framed by a snow-white beard (and in fact his entire person greatly resembling an aged Laurence Olivier), offers glimpses into both a past and present Lear. We hear his voice shake, see his walk heavy and near-shuffling, his hips stiff with age. The physical details are perfect, down to an absent-minded tic of sliding his tongue around his lips when thinking. We have seen this man in nursing homes, and he reeks of his own mortality.

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Here cracks a noble heart: McEleney with Abbey Siegworth, as Cordelia. Photo: Mark Turek.

But as Lear bridles when his youngest daughter refuses to pay the same glib homage as that of her two older sisters to gain land in inheritance, McEleney's anger channels a younger, kingly virility. When his trusted advisor the Earl of Kent (Dallas' excellent Hassan El-Amin) speaks out in Cordelia's defense, the fury mounts, and McEleney's Lear taps deep wells of verbal and physical power, his arm raised in curse, his voice a roar from a tied-up tiger.

The curses hurled by Lear are some of Shakespeare's cruelest lines, and McEleney spits them with menace. It's terrifying to witness--one even feels momentary pity for venal Goneril when her father snarls in verbal attack on her very womb.

Storm and madness

But a storm, and true madness, is coming, and Moriarty paces McEleney just right to allow room for what must climax in Lear’s wild journey into the tempest of not only the elements but his own mind. Under the drenching waters of Michael McGarty's inspired stagecraft (which won't be detailed here to preserve the drama of the production), McEleney both rages and falls to pieces. His kingliness, sanity, and even his clothes, stripped from him--naked and drenched--McEleney tiptoes gingerly under the downpour. His arms outstretched in a pathetic, un-self-aware flourish, his pale and slender frame looks both corpse- and child-like. It is his most brilliant moment on the stage, and not soon forgotten by anyone lucky enough to see it.

Troubles with Gloucester

After the climax of the storm, the focus shifts to the play's parallel action, that of the Earl of Gloucester's betrayal at the hands of his bastard son, Edmund. But despite strong performances from Dallas' Steven Michael Walters and Lee Trull as the legitimate and illegitimate sons of Gloucester, a confounding piece of casting saps momentum from the storyline. Moriarty has cast Trinity's Phyllis Kay as Gloucester, for reasons that are impossible to ascertain. What was written by Shakespeare as a father is now a mother, and although Kay gives a solid performance, particularly in her early scenes, the damage to the production is substantial. Not only are elemental truths of fathers and sons (different from mothers and sons) suddenly vacant, but also absent to parallel Lear’s own story. The effect ripples all the way to the play’s tragic finale, and one is left wondering how powerful this production would have been with a strong male in the role.

Much to admire

Still, there is much more to admire in Trinity's Lear. Dallas’ Christie Vela is bluntly brash as Goneril, and Trinity’s Angela Brazil moves from a jumpy plotter to ruthless murderer as Regan. Joe Wilson, Jr. is admirable and solid as Albany, and Dallas’ Chamblee Ferguson is fascinating as the cruel and grasping Cornwall. But the discovery here is Dallas’ Abbey Siegworth, whose Cordelia tempers youthful fierceness and intelligence with her storied kindness. We can see the queenly mettle hardening in this character, and she is every inch the royal stock. But when reunited with Lear at the play’s conclusion, Cordelia faces her father’s docile insanity and impotence, and Siegworth’s face collapses in pity, love, and tears. It’s as sharp and refined a performance as that of her scene partner, and together Siegworth and McEleney own the stage at curtain, as well they should.

Credit, finally, to Kevin Moriarty who returns to his roots at Trinity Rep with a strong vision and talented actors, and has dared to make a Lear that reaches for operatic effect while keeping its directorial eye painstakingly tuned to the human tragedy at its core. And has given us, in Brian McEleney, a complex, tortured king who embodies the tragedy he bears.

King Lear, through October 21, in the Sarah and Joseph Dowling Theater, 201 Washington St, Providence.


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