‘King Lear’ is back at the Guthrie Theater after a 20 year hiatus

Alas, the man in charge is mad.

King Lear Guthrie 2-17  504
'King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Joseph Haj
Guthrie Theater,  2/10/17
Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton
Scenic Design: Marion Williams
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller


Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

King Lear Guthrie 2-17 504 ‘King Lear, by William Shakespeare, directed by Joseph Haj Guthrie Theater, 2/10/17 Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton Scenic Design: Marion Williams Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson

Sophia Vilensky

The Guthrie Theater welcomed William Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear” to the stage for the first time in over 20 years, earlier this month. Directed by Joseph Haj, the play will run through April 2 on the Wurtele Thrust stage.

The show begins with a question of devotion. A rhetoric of love is staged where the characters are expected to suck-up to the man in charge. When Lear’s youngest, and favorite, daughter Cordelia — played by Kim Wong — decides not to play his game, she is banished. Her sisters, having chosen to flatter, are rewarded. The play then chronicles the titular character’s descent into madness. It’s a story of fragility, bonds and ulterior motives.

Though there’s much to be said about William Shakespeare’s position at the top of literary canon, “King Lear” still feels relevant today.

We are used to questioning the mental state of those in power. There’s still the problem of measuring love — treating it as something that can be conceived within limits. (If my father decided his will based on which of his daughters got the most Instagram likes on their father’s day post, I would surely lose.)

On opening night, the house was packed. Ladies snoozed in their seats with cups full of cocktail peanuts, and season ticket-holders schmoozed during scene changes. Somehow everyone knew when to laugh — albeit nervously.

Friday’s performance featured Stephen Yoakam as King Lear (the role is filled by Yoakam and Nathaniel Fuller on an alternating schedule), who teetered from joviality to the edge of reason beautifully. This descent was outfitted splendidly by costume designer Jennifer Moeller who deserves a shout out for the featured gowns, and the Fool’s pinstripe and polka dot ensemble. When a disheveled Lear appears in the second act with a crown of twigs, no one is going to tell him it’s weird — perhaps like your cousin’s flower crown at her destination wedding.

Beloved bastard Edmund is portrayed by Thomas Brazzle, whose hand gestures allow even the least trained in Shakespearean dialect to grasp the character’s plan for revenge. University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA program alumni Jason Rojas’s Gollum-esque Edgar-as-Poor-Tom provides ample entertainment — everything I imagined my first staging of the Dover cliffs scene to be.

The stage, though simple when it comes to its set, is illuminated by perfectly-lit spotlights. The musical accompaniment never comes in subtly, but it’s always fitting.

In “King Lear,” universal justice is questioned. A freshly poked-out eyeball dropped in water turns a glass an uncomfortable shade of pink.

After roughly three hours, the house stood one-by-one for a standing ovation, honoring the performers as they saw fit.

Yes, it’s long, and you can get lost in the dialect if you’re used to streaming your shows with subtitles. But hey, at the very least, Guthrie serves Peace Coffee.