Long before Freddy Kruger and Jason Voorhees slashed a gory swath across the silver screen, there was William Shakespeare’s bloody “King Lear.” But unlike the simplistic slasher horror genre, “Lear” has a complex, soap opera-esque plot – more entangled than a Gordian knot.
The Great Bard’s two-act tragedy opened April 29 to a sold out crowd at Good Luck Macbeth Theatre in Reno’s trendy Midtown district 410 years after its Globe Theatre premiere in London. But in a departure from “Lear’s” traditional ancient Britain setting, Director Joe Atack changed the location to 16th century Tsarist Russia. It’s a deft choice that places the production in a historical and political context that is perhaps more recognizable.
As the first act opened, the entire cast appeared on stage in sumptuous 16th century Russian garb, stomping and clapping rhythmically. Their stomp-stomp-clap repetition made me think of the rock group Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the refrain, “You got blood on your face, You big disgrace…,” a chilling foreshadow of things to come.
John Blomberg plays the title role in this 21st-century version as the aging king who wants to shift the weighty duties of state to his three daughters so he can retire in peace. But like many controlling parents, he insists on public professions of love as a prerequisite to inheritance. The eldest daughter, Goneril (Heather Willson-Eaton), flatters her father with exaggerated flowery words to earn her share. Not to be outdone, the middle child, Regan (Ashley Marie James), ups the ante with hyperbolic fawning. She too receives her legacy. But the youngest, Cordelia (Annakarina De La Torre Fennell), has no words worthy enough to describe her true affection. Enraged, the foolish king disinherits honest Cordelia and divides her portion among the others. Then, like the plot of Honoré de Balzac’s “Père Goriot,” the power-hungry daughters have no further use for their father. He is cast out on the stormy heath to fend for himself, accompanied by his faithful fool (Scott Rankin). No, the story isn’t over. The “blood on your face” power plays are just beginning.
As the play raced to the dénouement, a death metal band began to perform at the bar next door. The sound crept through the brick wall, building in intensity. Nevertheless, this cast of talented pros played on and the production transformed into an epic Wagnerian opera, with a driving death metal counterpoint to “Lear’s” dramatic libretto. I imagined a metal rock version of “Ride of the Valkyries.” Then, at the precise tragic moment, the band went silent, seemingly in respect. Bravo to coincidences!
Shakespeare often seems foreign to us Yanks across the pond. Not only is Elizabethan English difficult, but ancient conflicts can feel irrelevant. However, Atack’s insightful director choices reveal the timelessness of “Lear,” as he harkens to Ivan the Terrible’s Russia, while the production plays out its power grabs, political purges and the devastating legacy of totalitarianism. His stylized version is a graphic and powerful production – expertly interpreted by a talented cast that takes a hard look at political folly. And there is nothing ancient or foreign about that. Five blood-stained stars from this gobsmacked reviewer.
What: “King Lear”
Where: Good Luck Macbeth Theatre, 713 S. Virginia St., Reno
When: Through May 21
By Galen Watson