SALT LAKE CITY — “Come not between the dragon and its wrath,” shouts King Lear after his youngest daughter, Cordelia, displeases him. The aged king’s wrath and his powerless responses to adversity are the subject of one of Shakespeare’s most enduring plays. The Grassroots Shakespeare Company has decided to kick off 2017 with this tragedy. However, instead of a play full of wrath and dragonlike ferocity, this production is docile and tame.
As in almost all Grassroots shows, the cast of 11 collaborated to create the show without a director. This centerpiece of the Grassroots artistic system can be a high-risk, high-reward endeavor, and the result in King Lear was mixed. Most noticeably, the tone of the play was inconsistent; the first half of the show was played like a Shakespeare comedy, while the latter half had a more appropriate tone for a tragedy. Without the building tension of the beginning of the play, the script loses emotion and gravitas. Additionally, the tragic events of the end of the show are robbed of most of their power.
In the title role, Kris Jennings was disappointing; never once in the play did I feel that her Lear had years of leadership and dignity in her past. This was noticeable, for example, when she seemed to enjoy the fool’s antics too much, instead of eventually losing patience. Instead of a “dragon,” Jennings’s Lear is passive and bland. Without the seriousness and weight of kingship, Lear’s fall and despair seem almost trivial. Additionally, Jennings stumbled over some of her lines and didn’t seem to have a parental relationship with Regan, Goneril, or Cordelia. Nonetheless, in the final scene when Lear sees the dead Cordelia, Jennings did manage to elicit genuine pathos as Lear mourned and then died.
My favorite performance in the cast was from McKenzie Steele Foster in the role of Goneril. Her elegant and smooth demeanor made it easy to believe her as a woman scheming for power. I especially appreciated her disdain for Lear after he relinquishes power, which made Goneril’s decision to turn Lear out of her home convincing. Caitlin Boyce, playing Regan, was an excellent contrast to Foster, mostly because of the way the character reveled in her cruelty towards the people who obstruct her path to power.
Most rewarding, though, was how both Foster and Boyce had excellent sexual chemistry with Bijan J. Hosseini in the role of Edmund. These three actors made the love triangle subplot an admirable example of how Shakespeare could develop secondary characters efficiently. I also enjoyed Hosseini’s periodic monologues that revealed the malevolent nature of his character, all of which reminded me of Edmund’s place (next to Richard III and Iago) as one of the Shakespeare’s most maniacal and evil characters.
Unfortunately, none of the other cast members provided a memorable performance. King Lear provides many opportunities for actors to show profound reactions to almost unimaginably painful situations. But whether it was betraying a family member, reacting to madness, or showing compassion to a hurt man, most cast members missed their chance to display some emotional depth. The result was a King Lear that failed to live up to the script’s potential.
One of the hardest things for a Grassroots show to pull off is a unified costuming scheme. About half the costumes in King Lear consisted of modern articles of clothing, while the other half of the costumes were more Renaissance in appearance. The more classical costumes were some of the loveliest ever seen on the Grassroots stage, especially Hosseini’s ornate tunic and masculine boots and Brooke Bolick’s charming white dress as she played Cordelia. The unfortunate downside is that these lovely costumes made the more mundane modern clothes that Jennings or Addison Radle (in the role of Gloucester) wore seem bland and disappointing.
King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s most challenging plays to mount. Although this production was not ideal, it is a pleasant enough introduction to King Lear. Grassroots never fails to make Shakespeare accessible, so most audience members looking to experience one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies for the first time will be satisfied. However, most diehard Shakespeare fans have probably seen better productions of King Lear and can probably safely skip this one.