Chicago Theater Review: KING LEAR (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 18, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Some well-meant productions make you feel bad because you care so little. That’s perilously close to what transpires in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s louder-than-life revival of King Lear. No question, the drama already detonates on the page. Shakespeare presents a searing ancient-to-present plight: An arrogant monarch mistakenly confuses his daughters’ love for lip service. Giving away his throne and privileges, the foolish ex-king finds himself reduced to what he is without the trappings: a sclerotic, addlepated old man whose mind is going. Exposed to the elements, his only hope for mercy is rescue by the one good daughter who, perhaps perversely, refused to flatter her father.

Lear’s fall from grace and power comes so swiftly that subtlety is almost wasted here. Nonetheless, ambivalence can up the ante: Shakespeare’s lines testify to the contradictions and hesitations of defective mortals. But the feelings can’t be forced. You never reach the point where the audience doesn’t bother to care because the Steve Haggard and Larry Yando in Chicago Shakespeare's KING LEAR - photo by Liz Lauren.staging does it for us. Then it really is a “tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” If we can’t meet this dynastic/domestic tragedy half-way, it won’t touch us at all. Instead of drawing us in, thespian extremism makes us push back—and, just as regrettably, it makes everything sound the same.

Director Barbara Gaines rightly believes that King Lear is for now, which isn’t always true with Shakespeare. Especially engaging, she argues, is its depiction of a parent’s decline from the Alzheimer’s affliction or other dotage, challenging a child to do the right thing. But, of course, King Lear is much more than a health-care PSA—it’s a scream in the face of gratuitous malice, a cry for help when filial devotion becomes a license to kill. You can’t do this play without acknowledging the existence of evil; Lear is about more than just dysfunction and failure to communicate.

From the start, Larry Yando’s Lear is subject to memory lapses—which the opening night audience, perhaps conditioned by the beloved actor’s annual portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, took for geezer humor. He bellows for obedience, inviting the defiance to come. His instant dismissal of his loving daughter Cordelia (Nehassaiu Larry Yando and Nehassaiu deGannes in Chicago Shakespeare's KING LEAR - photo by Liz Lauren.DeGannes, ardent but also artificial) hints at previous child abuse as much as a tyrant’s preference for appearance over sincerity. Yando’s rage is by now so overwrought that he’s painted himself into an acting corner: Later, when misbegotten misfortune dogs him like a fury, he just can’t top the fierce frenzy from the first act.

Almost immediately abandoned by the supposedly dutiful daughters, this broken monarch finds himself engulfed by the loudest storm ever, matching it with his own howls and curses. Here his descent into insanity seems comically exaggerated: Where Lear’s band of brothers testifies to the pity and pathos of his epic failure, many in the opening night audience found his looniness hilarious, and thus unthreatening. When our lost Lear is finally broken down into unsought humility, and a late-blooming, ineffectual sensitivity to his suffering subjects, it’s as fulsome as his fury. His amplified roar of “No, no, no” at the bitter end is cut from the same cloth as his opening temper tantrum.

As always, along with a vast ensemble of soldiers and hangers on, Gaines gathers the best players possible and, mostly, talent will out: Kevin Gudahl’s loyal Kent; Ross Lehman’s sardonic (but ultimately tedious) Fool; Michael Aaron Lindner, deeply Larry Yando, Nehassaiu deGannes, and Kevin Gudahl in Chicago Shakespeare's KING LEAR - photo by Liz Lauren.affecting as blinded Gloucester who is also fooled by an unworthy child; and noble Steve Haggard as his worthy son.

The bad folks fare less well: Bianca LaVerne Jones’s Goneril and Jessiee Datino’s Regan are soap-operatically spiteful, their rapacious vileness rampant from histrionic start to unaffecting end. Uncharacteristically allergic to nuance, Lance Baker melodramatically sneers his way through hyper-violent Cornwall. Showing off his magnificent physique as if a hard body beats bastardy, Jesse Luken’s illegitimate Edmund is a phenomenon of foulness, as seductive as vindictive.

There’s no doubting the gargantuan budget behind this exercise in excess: Apart from Lindsay Jones’s quirky soundtrack (for some bizarre reason, Lear’s mental breakdown is accompanied by Frank Sinatra ballads, hardly an accompaniment for tragedy), Mark Bailey’s huge metal façade that falls over Lear exists just because Ross Lehman and Larry Yando in Chicago Shakespeare's KING LEAR - photo by Liz Lauren.they can afford it, and a David Hockney spinoff in Regan’s castle descends to get a cheap and irrelevant laugh over its male nude (to be fair, Goodman Theatre’s King Lear was even more lumbered with distracting props and anachronistic overkill).

Admittedly, even if it doesn’t trust the text, a too assertive Lear beats a bland one. But on Navy Pier, there’s enough fustian to awaken the dead, let alone alarm the somnolent. And yet, dammit, there’s more than enough buried truth in every verse to do the trick when the speech comes from the character and not just the crisis.

photos by Liz Lauren

King Lear
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
scheduled to end on November 9, 2014
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

David Mink September 20, 2014 at 7:31 am

I saw the show and agree with Larry’s review. My friends, and I were so completely unmoved, even untouched by anything that went on that I was amazed at the reviews of the major newspaper critics. Everything my buddies and I felt, or in this case, didn’t feel is touched on in Larry’s review. I was in a very good production of this as a student at The Goodman School, with Morris Carnovsky as Lear, and I hope to direct a production of my own some day. As Larry points out at the end of the review, the script itself is enough. Just tell the story, it’s a good one, a touching one, a moving one. Thank you, LB.


Lawrence Bommer September 20, 2014 at 11:14 am

Always good to know whenever you are NOT a voice crying in the wilderness…


Joe Feliciano September 22, 2014 at 9:52 am

I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Bommer’s review, however, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I left at intermission. Lear is my all time favorite play and I decided since they hadn’t laid the groundwork in the first half for what was to come in the second, my time was better spent watching Peter Brook’s amazing production on youtube.

I was most shocked by the amateurishness of the acting. Maybe Chris Jones can write off the cringe-inducing acting of the daughters to their never having been on the CST stage before, but I cannot. In a play featuring some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry, I don’t think I heard more than three consonants between the three ladies throughout the entire first half.

Thank you Larry for giving your readers a heads up.


David Mink September 22, 2014 at 10:17 am

No, you are not, not at all. I just re read your review, and I can’t tell you how much my friends and I felt the same way during the performance we saw. Our audience was laughing at what I consider odd places to be sure, but they were also very quiet during curtain calls.


Lawrence Bommer September 22, 2014 at 10:30 am

I’m glad that real lovers of the Bard can still prefer the play they deserved to see to the Emperor’s new clothes.


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