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Lear: Shakespeare's tragedy gets a respectful and riveting production - Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto

Lear: Shakespeare's tragedy gets a respectful and riveting production
13 January 2017

by Drew Rowsome
- Photos by Michael Cooper

Groundling Theatre's Lear takes Shakespeare's King Lear and makes it so accessible and riveting that the only comparison might be the experience of an audience, in a century or so, watching a live condensed Dynasty or The Crown or a docudrama on the House of Windsor vs Princess Diana. Yes, the language would have mutated over the decades, but the machinations, rivalries, backstabbing and sexual maneuvering are timeless. And will probably, alas, remain contemporary.

Lear is presented in a deceptively unadorned staging that places emphasis on the text and renders it as currently comprehensible as it is possible to translate iambic pentameter and ancient colloquial quirks. It is also a gimmick-free production. Unless you want to count cross-gender casting Seana McKenna as Lear. That notion is discounted instantly: McKenna commands the stage with ease and hers is a powerful and memorable performance. She is witty, imperious, vulnerable, and possessed of a hair-raising howl of grief that is so guttural that it hurts to hear and watch. McKenna is mesmerizing and magnificent.

Neither is casting iconic comedian Colin Mochrie as the Fool a stunt. Mochrie proves as adept at delivering Shakespearean prose as he is with delivering laughs - or, as here, in combination - and almost manages to transcend his celebrity. In this case, as the rest of the able cast proves, the play truly is the thing. The only mis-step is the emphasis on graphically illustrating Shakespeare's more ribald wordplay which, while crowd-pleasing the first few times, becomes disorienting in an otherwise rather chaste, with attention paid to the action rather than the lustful, production.

The two evil (or practical) sisters, Deborah Hay and Diana Donnelly, are spectacular at subtly revealing their motivation and doubts while being self-centred divas, though a little more heat would make their fate at the hands of the Machiavellian Edmund/Alex McCooeye more believable. The good sister Cordelia, Mercedes Morris (Heart of Steel), is simultaneously regal and fragile making her fate suitably tragic. Jim Mezon (Red) excels as the Earl of Gloucester and his interactions with Antoine Yared's Edgar (who incidentally is a welcome bit of eye candy in his mad scenes), are quite touching. 

Kevin Hanchard's rich baritone and stoic presence provide the moral centre to a world where all others have become unmoored or preyed upon. There is an impish physicality and delight in duplicity in Augusto Bitter's Oswald, and Karl Ang is so imposing that his defeat of Edmond is never in doubt. Lear is a very palpable, lived-in, production. The actors transform the set as they go, always in motion, and always grounded in who they are: performers living the play in the moment and letting that counteract any artificiality in the language.

Lear builds to a shattering climax and feels much shorter than its running time. It was only after the standing ovation (and make no doubt that word of mouth will make this a difficult ticket to get) that I realized what a valuable teaching tool this production will be. Not only in making King Lear a crystal clear text with themes and structure presented without adornment, and a treatise on the horrors of aging and familial relationships, but also as a master class in acting as McKenna, with strong support, commands that the audience follow this woman as she descends into madness and unbearable sorrow. 

Lear continues until Sun, Jan 28 at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 235 Queen's Quay W. groundlingtheatre.com

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