Cordelia and Her Sisters 

Shotgun's Lear is all deception, madness, and family dysfunction.

Eyeballs loudly and forcibly removed: two. Sisters: three. Body count: eight. Does it intrigue anyone else that now that Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley is a proud papa, the company is doing more work that touches on screwed-up relationships between parents and children? Sure, Shotgun did The Play About the Baby years ago, and Iphigenia at Aulis was all about a man sacrificing his daughter. But its current production of King Lear makes two in a row this year alone, after Bright Ideas pitted a ruthless mother against her son's hapless preschool.

Pity Cordelia; she caught the "radical honesty" bug a few centuries too early. When her father King Lear turns to her, expecting that she will lavish him with the same kind of overblown hooey that her mendacious older sisters Goneril and Regan have been dishing out, she demurs. But Lear is not interested in plain, practical love; he needs his kingly ego stroked. In a rage he disowns Cordelia, divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, and then plans to spend his dotage alternating months between the two. This does not please the two schemers, and for their own separate reasons they set out to destroy him. Everything pretty much goes downhill from there: The heavens respond with bad weather, Lear's retainers end up banished or blinded, the king himself ends up naked and raving in the middle of a big storm, and the bodies pile up.

All of this is much more riveting in the hands of the Shotgunners than you might think. Codirectors Dooley and Joanie McBrien have a punchy script and a fairly strong cast studded with heavy hitters. Notably, this is a cast with great voices: Besides Richard Louis James as Lear and an unusally muted Trish Mulholland as Goneril, we have John Mercer, Nick Olivero, Katja Rivera, and so forth.

Richard Louis James' work with Shotgun has specialized in crazy, and he doesn't disappoint here. Beginning powerful, assured, and arrogant, he handles Lear's descent into madness — and the newfound tenderness and sympathy for other people — seamlessly. He has a hair-raising take on Lear's "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" speech.

One point that's a little weak is why the two older sisters are treating their father so badly. Obviously they suck up to him in the beginning because they want the land, but then things get confusing. Goneril says daddy is making her crazy, but it's hard to see why. Regan complains of how many people she needs to feed and house when he comes to see her, but we just saw her get half of all his land — it's not as if she's starving, even if a retinue of a hundred knights adds up to a lot of guest toothbrushes. Mulholland spends much of her stage time silently making expressive faces at the audience, and Fontana Butterfield as Regan is incredibly graceful — in a subtle moment where she picks up her skirt before stepping backward you would think she'd grown up wearing courtly garb — but whether their father has given them cause to be hateful or they're just the "unnatural hags" he believes them to be is not clear.

Unlike Edmund, bastard son of the duke of Gloucester and the only Shakespearean villain who has a change of heart, not that it happens in time to save anyone. Edmund is the subplot, yet nobody mentioned this to the slitheringly good Benjamin Privitt, who finally gets to play someone who isn't basically decent. Privitt's solo scenes are tremendous — he's driven, funny, and seductive — and his motivations and strategies are perfectly transparent. In a world full of simplistic villains, Shakespeare's miscreants are a welcome change with their complexity. They don't need to take over the world; they're trying to right what they see as the terrible wrongs that have been done them. Edmund was born out of wedlock, and his father is always needling him about it.

While some of the motivations are murky, the themes are sharply drawn. A recurring theme in Shakespeare's work, loyalty is especially important in Lear, and clearly played by the Shotgun cast. Kent, Cordelia, and the Fool remain loyal to the king, as hard as he makes it for them: The banished Kent (Eric Burns) disguises himself to stay close to his liege, Cordelia and her new husband raise an army to come to Lear's aid even though he has disowned her, and the Fool — especially as played here so wonderfully by Katja Rivera, all crouches and capering — follows him affectionately into the wilderness. Gloucester is so loyal to Lear he loses his eyes for it. The same dynamic is visible in Edgar (Dave Maier, who also built the fights), who rescues his blinded father although Gloucester has essentially signed his son's death warrant.

On the technical side, things are deceptively simple. The lines of the costumes and set are clean and uncluttered. The stark, chalky-white lighting that breaks around Edgar after the intermission is a striking contrast to the wild stormy lighting before it, and the sound design on the storm, with hints of voices, is nice. However, the taped trumpets do sound a little silly.

Written in Shakespeare's fertile tragedy phase, right between Othello and Macbeth, the play was considered too depressing to stage — it is virtually the only work in the canon that does not end with the suggestion that humans can change for the better. So Dooley may now have a family, but this isn't a family show: The Shotgunners haven't suddenly gotten all heartwarming on us. Swift and gleefully nasty, this Lear is three hours of deception, madness, and extremely poor intrafamily communication.


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