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John Gould Rubin’s Reinvention of KING LEAR at the Wallis with Joe Morton

By Jim Gilles

River Gallo, as Lear’s most loving daughter Cordelia at the start of the play

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/6/22 – June 3 – 5 turned out to be the last weekend of a new stage production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Bram Goldsmith Theatre of the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills. Set in the not-too-distant future, the play has been streamlined by director John Gould Rubin and placed in a post-climate apocalyptic America dealing with environmental disaster, technological chaos and an array of storms. The idea of casting Joe Morton (Scandal, The Brother from Another Planet) in the title role is an outstanding one. This production is as unsettling as its wasteland of a set, where chairs are knocked over, tables climbed and jumped upon by multiple characters, runners yanked and dishes scattered. So many times does someone smack a seat or truck with a table, that one almost starts to pity these inanimate objects. This production, billed as a “reinvention,” is big on cell phones, hashtags and a thematic overlay of a world in environmental as well as moral crisis. In scenic designer Christopher Barreca’s configuration, the Wallis’s Bram Goldsmith Theater seats audiences both at the back of the stage and facing it. (My seat was on stage next to one of the actors – only a few feet from the action.) The actors join them in the front rows, sometimes playing directly to them.

(Rafael Jordan (Edmund) goading Mark Harelik (Gloucester) into disowning his son Edgar

Despite some instances of inventive staging and plenty of technical blares and flashes, Rubin’s production is irritating to sit through and partly due to the flashing lights and endless marching around by the actors on the sparse stage. The production employs seven actors, only two of whom (Zachary Solomon and River Gallo) are doubling roles. The production’s adaptor/reinventor, while keeping Shakespeare’s language, has dispensed with several characters both virtuous and rotten. So we lack the key figure of Kent, as well as Oswald, Albany and Cornwall (though there is still talk of Gonerill being married). Despite an assortment of arresting contemporary-skewing costumes designed by X. Hill (Emily Swallow’s Goneril’s is particularly badass), River Gallo wears the same white pantsuit left over from the wardrobe of Joan Collins in the 1980s’s Dynasty in the guise of both the Fool and Lear’s banished daughter, Cordelia. If you know the play, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but it can make things a little confusing, particularly in the closing scene when one character is dead onstage, the other is dead offstage while the actor playing both is alive and talking (with lines usually delivered by Kent).

Emily Swallow (Goneril)

The play begins with Edmund (Rafael Jordan) on stage, controlling the set of dining room tables and even dancing around on them, with his monologue “Thou Nature are my goddess” always on his cellphone recording selfie videos and hashtagging #standupforbastards,” which he posts on the two projection boards flanking the stage. Basically, the engine of the play, Edmund also does most of the recording of scenes, sticking his cellphone in people’s faces to capture close-ups and reactions. Most of the characters are working their devices at some point throughout the play, sending texts or responding to disaster alerts.

The arrival of Lear (Joe Morton), his daughters and Gloucester (Mark Harelik) for the first act kingdom division puts the tables to their most inventive use. Previously set up adjacent to each other as though for a small dinner party, they are bisected and trisected to signify the map of England with each daughter being handed given a centerpiece. An amped-up and exuberant Morton is jovial and laser focused in getting about transacting this business, showing no trace of the dottering or madness to come. His challenge “which of you shall we say doth love us most” brings Swallow’s Goneril to giggling disbelief. Seriously, dad? You’re asking me what?

Brie Eley (Regan) with her cell phone, dealing with her father’s demands for housing 100 soldiers.

River Gallo, a non-binary actor new to stage work, proves especially interesting in the cast, delivering a more forceful Cordelia than we are often accustomed to seeing. I am not sure that Gallo’s portrayal of Cordelia really works, given that their deeper voice and limited acting range detract from that role. In their other incarnation as the Fool, the actor is up to the task of trading barbs and insights with Joe Morton’s Lear. The scene within the hovel on the heath with Lear, the Fool and Edgar (Zachary Solomon) playing mad Poor Tom has a claustrophobic air, with characters frequently crawling around on their knees amidst the wreckage. Likewise, Zachary Soloman’s Edgar is introduced at the play’s start as a somewhat cute gay pool boy in an over-the-top designer suit but finds his element as the mad Tom of Bedlam

Rafael Jordan (as Edmund), the evil illegitimate son of Gloucester

As the evening draws on, Morton brings out a performance suffused with intelligence and insight that feels like it’s competing with the blare and techno gadgetry of the physical production. His is a quieter, more contemplative king whose realization of his missteps seem to afflict more than the betrayals themselves. Even at his maddest, this Lear never seems so far gone. But in a world in breakdown mode where technology is so rampant, it makes sense that a lonely Lear would be seeking a viable human connection. He finds one, all too briefly and at the height of his madness in Dover in his reunion with Gloucester. Harelik is quietly excellent as embodiment of the white-bearded loving, yet clueless and superstitious, Gloucester.

The story line, streamlined by removing some characters, exposes the violent power struggles within a dysfunctional extended family. Lear demands the love of his three daughters as he decides how to divide his kingdom amongst them and Lear’s loyal courtier Gloucester grapples with his two feuding sons, Edgar and Edmund. Ultimately, King Lear is about love, by which we are to understand that the filial love bond is stronger than the natural inclination to physical love personified by Edmund and his flirtatious relationship with Goneril and Regan. The boundaries of love are put to the test and this is what makes the play Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy.

Zachary Solomon (Edgar), betrayed by his evil half-brother Edmund at the beginning of the play.

Joe Morton, as Lear, rants, raves, tantrums, grovels, and babbles as he struggles with his deep inner turmoil and descent from the once powerful patriarch, seeking to relieve himself of his responsibilities, to the madness of a man betrayed and defeated in spirit. River Gallo begins and ends the play portraying the banished Cordelia and is captivating throughout the play in the  role of Lear’s Fool who double-talks and sings frivolous songs to cajole and advise Lear. Zachary Solomon as Edgar, stripped down to a red tunic for much of the play as mad Tom of Bedlam, scampers about skillfully taking on the character’s various impersonations.

At the end of the play, Edgar reappears, no longer as Tom of Bedlam and fights his half-brother Edmund. Regan dies, poisoned by Goneril, and Goneril takes her own life news of her betrayal with Edmund. Edmund is fatally wounded (by some kind of magic powder in this stylized interpretation) and Edgar reveals himself. An order is sent to cancel Lear and Cordelia’s execution, but it arrives too late to save Cordelia. Lear carries her in, and soon after dies on stage of a broken heart. Ordinarily Kent (who was written out of this production) announces that he has a journey to go on like his master Lear, but those lines are given to River Gallo, who appears as a ghostly incarnation of Cordelia.

Zachary Solomon (Edgar disguised as Tom of Bedlam) & Joe Morton (King Lear).

Though it can at times be difficult to understand some of the Shakespeare’s language, we are kept engaged during the two act 3-hour play by the expressively riveting performances of all the cast. An underscoring soundtrack by Danny Erdberg and Ursala Kwong-Brown is unrelenting and frequently distracting, as is the in-your-face lighting design. Our attention is also held by the actor’s innovative use of cell phones to capture live video close-ups of each other as well as to project revealing text messages between characters. With this, the play also takes on a feel of us watching a faux documentary reality television show.