"King Lear" may well be the most towering tragedy written by William Shakespeare, and the role of the king has demanded well-developed men who can provide both the gravitas and the old man madness of the monarch.
Over the years many of the world’s finest actors have worn the crown - men like Laurence Olivier, Paul Schofield, James Earl Jones and most recently Sam Waterston. All men who wear age with grace and with evident turbulence, they have earned the wrinkles on their face.
And so, it was with some trepidation that I walked into the performance of "King Lear" at Alchemist Theatre over the weekend. Bo Johnson is an actor of great skill with a distinct ability to play a wide variety of characters. But he is a young man, not nearly with the life experiences to make this version of the king resonate. He is in a rock and roll band and performs extensively.
This production of "Lear," directed with great skill and creativity by Leda Hoffman, is a very powerful night of theater. But with the role of Lear being the mountain upon which this play lives or dies, there was at least half of a problem.
There are two things to know about this king. One is that he is old. The other is that his age and infirmity are parts of the demonic madness that marks the fall of this monarch.
Johnson delivered a spectacular portrait of a man going mad before our very eyes. He was mad at the start of the play and shred all semblance of sanity with a skill and sensitivity that was breathtaking the rest of the way.
The problem which was never overcome was that Johnson is a young man. While he and others in the cast proclaimed their sorrow and angst over his aging, Johnson pranced around the stage like a young man.
Old men move slowly. They take small steps. They may have a touch of palsy. They have voices that are halting and sometimes quiver. They are hesitant and careful.
Johnson moved with speed and certainty. He spoke with passion and power. He showed how strong and agile he was.
And the choice he made with his body took so much away from his Lear that the strengths of his performance - and there were many - got lost.
If you are going to scream and complain about the ravages of old age, you better look like you’re old. Otherwise it’s hard to believe you.
Save that one complaint, this production is rife with strong performances, especially by the three Lear daughters.
Anna Figlesthaler, who played Reagan, and Grace Dewolff, who played Cordelia, were both sparkling. And Libby Amato continued to show her wonderful growth as Goneril. Amato is a very special actor who brings great sensitivity and intelligence to her performances.
A special mention needs to go to Tim Linn who created a magnificent Edgar and the schizophrenic and manic freak who rivals the madness of the king. His performance is truly special.
Information on the play can be found at alchemisttheatre.com.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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