Theater Review: KING LEAR (The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Tony Frankel on May 21, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


One of the greatest travesties in L.A. theater history arrived at The Wallis last weekend, and I still have the emotional scars to prove it. A showcase for Joe Morton, who starred as Dick Gregory in The Wallis’s production of Turn Me Loose, this misguided adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear has at the forefront some of the most atrocious miscasting, or rather, lack of acting that one would expect of a junior high school. Worse, it has a wonky vision that doesn’t support the text. Instead of producing a worthy new play that requires a mid-size house in order to get the rights to be produced, The Wallis has decided to take its gorgeous theater (500 seats, plus more added on upstage risers), and allow Turn Me Loose‘s director John Gould Rubin to turn King Lear into a modern-day, incomprehensible, infuriating abomination. (Ironically, across town at Anteaus, a low-budget Hamlet, adapted by Elizabeth Swain, understands that the play is, indeed, the thing.)

Emily Swallow (Goneril)

The main plot has 80-year-old Lear dividing his Kingdom among his three daughters, based on their professed love to him (he does this either out of senility or obliviousness, depending on which Shakespeare scholar you consult). Two daughters fawningly make a show of their love, and are granted the land; the third is given nothing when she offers an honest, simple love, and is exiled to France. The other two cunning daughters then attempt to rob the king of his remaining power. A subplot has the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund conspiring to usurp the power bestowed on his legitimate brother Edgar to become the next Earl.

Brie Eley (Regan)

By placing himself in the charge of his fickle children, old King Lear abandons the security of his own reason to wander an inhospitable wilderness — a fitting metaphor for both a venerable script in the hands of Mr. Rubin and an audience stunned for three hours in eye-glazing incredulity. A huge problem with The Wallis’s King Lear is that Rubin seems at a loss for reason. As with many Lear productions, this story of a feudal king’s self-destruction has the players dressed in modern business suits for men and runway dresses for women, with cell phones replacing paper messages and letters. OK, fine, it’s worked before. But here phone-shaped screens flanking the stage show videos of tsunamis and other end-of-the-world calamities with staticky transmissions (Keith Skretch‘s terrific projections were wasted all night). The end-of-the-world weather becomes clear: There’s an Act III storm after Lear has fought with his daughters, indicating that nature is in charge, not some feckless human with a crown. The storm — part of all the destructive weather patterns we watch — aids Lear to cultivate a sense of humility.

Rafael Jordan (Edmund), Mark Harelik (Gloucester)

So, if we are in some post-apocalyptical climate disaster, why doesn’t it look like that with the set? What’s with the haughty fashions? And no matter where we are, what’s with the cheap-ass banquet tables and assorted cheap plastic accoutrement doing on stage in so many scenes? And why are actors in the same costumes for most of the show? When actors are done in a scene, they return to front row seats in the audience to watch each other. In other words, WHERE ARE WE? And — if I correctly interpret Rubin’s intention to put a mirror up to our own complicity in climate change — the show didn’t make me want to run out and dig through trash for recyclables. (It’s enough I have to dig through the trash on stage to write this review.)

River Gallo (Cordelia and Fool)

Later, an actress’s face was projected onto every seat. This explains why you are asked by the Wallis to wear “light-colored clothing for this immersive theatrical experience” (it also helped to light up a house of about 30 patrons; that’s 30 out of 600+ seats). It seems like Rubin was more obsessed with technological feats than with the script, a hatchet job that was in development for three years. I must say there were some choices that worked elucidating a line of dialogue here and there, but if you aren’t familiar with Lear, steer clear. In fact, steer clear anyway.

River Gallo (Cordelia and Fool), Joe Morton (King Lear)

And what was with the casting? Get this: As the youngest daughter Cordelia, we have an intersex actor River Gallo, who comes off like a deep-voiced drag queen, complete with attitude and “Oh no she di’n’t” line readings. With gorgeous, thick, brown locks, Gallo is dressed in X. Hill‘s white, overpriced designer lab coat, white slacks, plastic see-through high-heeled shoes, and a plastic chest covering with silver shapes on it. OK, I’m even willing to go with all that, but here’s the kicker. Gallo can’t act. I mean Gallo. Can. Not. Act.

River Gallo (Cordelia and Fool)

Wait, it get’s better, or rather worse.

Gallo then makes a U-turn back on stage without changing costume, mannerisms or voicing, and is suddenly playing the King’s trusty companion, The Fool. What the Foolck?! Instead of an exuberant, playful and physical Fool, we get evidence as to why so many drag queens need to lip-synch. (And just relax, my cancel culture friends, I didn’t say Gallo is a drag queen, I said Gallo comes off like one).

Zachary Solomon (Edgar and King of France), Joe Morton (King Lear)

Equally stultifying in the acting department is another in this nine-member ensemble also cast in two roles. Zachary Soloman‘s poor scandalized brother Edgar is now a cute, gay pool boy. Later, as Edgar’s alter-ego Tom, Edgar is now a near-naked humpy, gay pool boy, but high as a kite (he was downright unintelligible as Tom) wearing what was once a pink toga but is now rags. The King of France, who married Cordelia after she was disowned, is played by Soloman as a … well … ugh. (By the way, if you’re doing your math, eleven roles were completely excised.)

Joe Morton (King Lear)

This production features two ringers, actors who could not be bad if you paid them to do it. Joe Morton, as the ruined king, has a tongue as nimble as his powerful theatricality. He doesn’t stumble once on some of the choicest syllables in Shakespeare, and he fairly dances his way through the mad scenes; it’s all very committed. (I can’t wait to see Mr. Morton as King Lear one day.) Mark Harelick, the reason I go to see any play featuring Mark Harelick (including this one), plays Gloucester as a weary, befuddled bureaucrat who more or less deserves his awful fate; it’s a solid and touching performance, made all the more remarkable for what he has to play against.

Mark Harelick, Gloucester

I gotta tell you, some of the other players ain’t so hot either, and others who are great actors just get lost in the storm. Poor Emily Swallow (Disgraced) as evil sister Goneril was just floundering given the hatchet job done on the script. Turns out the death of the planet isn’t our only great concern: so is the death of theater.

photos by Jason Williams

King Lear
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
ends on June 5, 2022
for more info, visit The Wallis

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