It is an interesting new spin on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to look at the downfall of this unwise ruler from the lens of Alzheimer’s disease. That is what director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott does in the production now in repertory at A Noise Within.It turns the focus almost exclusively on Lear and allows for his admittedly conniving daughters to seem legitimate in their frustrations and outrage with him (at least at first). As someone who has watched a parent dissolve into this dreaded disease, I can say that the concept makes for interesting conversation.
★★★When: In repertory through May 6; 7:30 p.m. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.Tickets: From $44, $20 student rush.Length: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with intermission.Suitability: Some violence and onstage blood.Information: 626-356-3100, www.anoisewithin.org. April 8, 14, 23 and May 5; 2 p.m. April 13 and May 4; 8 p.m. April 8, 23 and May 6.Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E.
Freddy Douglass radiates evil in every tone as the deadly Edmund, and Rafael Goldstein handles desperation well as the maligned Edgar. Trisha Miller and Arie Thompson advance the two older sisters from a radiation of privilege and power to a sense of self-focused obsessive, destructive behavior. In this they are matched by Jeremy Rabb as Regan’s noble, but easily vicious husband, while Christopher Franciosa provides an increasingly empowered foil for Goneril as her equally high-ranking spouse. Still, as expected, Elliot uses Shakespearean language as if it were his own, and consistently stays true to the concept of this particular form of human disintegration.Indeed, the cast itself is splendid. Finally, this interpretation leaves Elliott’s Lear without much room to expand. By making him significantly altered even at the start, he blossoms into what becomes (in this interpretation) an unreasoning fury so early that the rest of his long journey becomes a certain amount of emotional station-keeping.
It could (though actually does not) make a uniquely wrenching star turn for Geoff Elliott in the title role, but at what cost? When he insists his daughters say how much they love him, he gets two fulsome answers and one honest, practical one, and turns on this last as a sign of disrespect. Thus, he hands over power to the two women who have his interests least at heart, and their own greed at the fore. However, when taken as a whole, to dismiss his behavior as the result of this condition is to negate much of the rest of what Shakespeare has to say about familial love, envy and lust for power. Having ruled his country with intensely loyal people around him, he is used to expecting richly voiced praise. He becomes an inconvenience, and they whittle away at his dignity and even ability to defend himself until there is nothing left. It is too easy on Lear, for one thing, and twists the focus away from other important themes.Essentially, Lear is a foolish man.
Madness, thus, becomes a thing of circumstance, playing on a weak mind but not on a disabled one, as one can tell when he comes to himself toward the play’s end.In the ANW production, this last thing is made tricky by the disease itself, one which is emphasized over and over by projections of MRIs of slices of the brain, which add color to the intentionally bleak set. It also makes the dogged, sacrificial devotion to Lear by the banished Earl of Kent make less sense, and it makes the king’s Fool occasionally rather superfluous. When you descend into Alzheimers, you forget who you are. No coming back from that.Still, the larger loss is to the importance of and subtext about the moral decay present in daughters Goneril and Regan, and in the villainous Edmund, who determinedly destroys his legitimate brother Edgar and his father, the Earl of Gloucester.