Review- Shakespeare & Company’s production of “King Lear,” starring Christopher Lloyd

The New Spruce Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, fills up before King Lear begins. (Photo by Bess Hochstein)
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Given the stormy weather we’ve experienced this month in the water-logged Berkshires, combined with the COVID-inspired preponderance of outdoors productions, I was expecting a more Tempest-like atmosphere for Shakespeare & Company’s new staging of King Lear, directed by Nicole Ricciardi. Fortunately, on Saturday night, July 10, the persistent rain let up and show did go on as the inaugural production in S&Co’s new 500-seat amphitheater, the untented New Spruce Theatre, a project begun last year when live, in-person performances were forced to take a hiatus. (Audiences the previous evening were not so lucky; the advance of yet another hurricane-Elsa-related thunderstorm forced the production indoors onto the Company’s main stage, the Tina Packer Playhouse.)

The main draw of this production is, of course, actor Christopher Lloyd in the starring role. Set aside any expectations that his wacky antics as Doc Brown in Back to the Future or Reverend Jim Ignatowski in the TV series Taxi will inform the madness of King Lear. Lloyd actually plays a more subdued Lear; indeed, in some of the scenes where we anticipate a roar from the king, we get a more muffled delivery—for example, mad Lear’s “Howl, howl” lament in Act 5, Scene 3, when the grieving king brings forth the body of the slain Cordelia. Even at the start, when Lear is in full possession of his powers, he is a less than commanding presence on stage.

This lack of powerful delivery by Lear could be a directorial decision. After all, a key theme of the play is the loss of power as one ages, and the usurpation of power by the corrupt younger generation, as depicted by Lear’s disingenuous daughters Goneril and Regan and the Earl of Gloucester’s treacherous, illegitimate son Edmund. It’s also true that Lear is an extremely demanding role, and Lloyd is, after all, 83 years old, thus realistically reflecting the weakness of the king, even as Lear’s impotence was self-imposed the moment he gave up his kingdom to his daughters. Whether roaring or whimpering, Lloyd’s Lear is affecting and memorable.   

This production includes many standout performances, including from Lear’s coterie of elders—Kent, Gloucester, and the Fool, played respectively by company stalwarts Jonathan Epstein, Nigel Gore, and artistic director Allyn Burrows. MaConnia Chesser brings more than a glint of evil to her portrayal of Goneril, and Jennie M. Jadow disturbingly conveys bloodlust as Regan during the blinding of Gloucester, an act of violence that seems to turn her on, along with her husband the Duke of Cornwall, played by Ryan Winkles. 

That bloody eye-gouging scene is difficult to watch, a credit to Winkles doing double duty as fight captain, working with violence designer Ted Hewlett and movement director Susan Dibble. (I found it puzzlingly incongruous that the audience laughed during this gruesome sequence each time the conniving couple lustfully embraced after delivering a blow; I’m pretty sure it was not meant to be comic relief.) The movement team also deserves kudos for fight choreography in the duel between Edmund and Edgar, both demanding roles deftly portrayed, respectively, by Bryce Michael Wood and Nomé SiDone. SiDone also makes a strong impression in his brief appearance as the king of France, who takes Cordelia’s hand when her father shuns her during the first scene, and does double duty in Edgar’s Poor Tom persona.) Jasmine Cheri Rush’s Cordelia hits the right notes of honesty and earnestness; possessing great stage presence, she’s a compelling actress I hope (and expect) to see more of. 

Effective minimal scenic design by Jim Youngerman allows the towering evergreens for which the New Spruce Theatre is named do the bulk of the work; strung with curtains, they suggest majestic interiors in the first half of the play, and when the action moves to the stormy woods after the nearly three-hour production’s sole 15-minute intermission, they provide a naturally perfect setting. Govane Lohbauer does her typically astute costume work, adorning the court figures in distinct jewel tones. One hopes that the weather improves so more audiences can see this production as it was conceived, in nature—that and its unnatural opposite being another overarching theme of King Lear.

Christopher Lloyd stars in King Lear at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, now through August 28.

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Rehearsal images supplied by Shakespeare & Company unless otherwise noted.