backstage (2007-10)

The Fool Doth Think He is Wise

Eight MFA students take on Shakespeare's King Lear

by Kevin Crowe

Shakespeareans quiver at the thought of King Lear . It's armchair Shakespeare, not the kind of thing you'd actually consider performing on a stage, at least not in front of people. Lear's nearly impossible to portray, or so goes conventional wisdom, best used as fodder for research papers and creative allusions. Maybe it's because Lear's too real, too much like us. In him, we see how easily life can be brutalized beyond recognition. We see how easily Man can fall.

For Shakespeare, the character of Lear helped to push his hypothesis of a malign humanity. Morality, perhaps, is fool's stuff.

It's a great accomplishment for any actor, no doubt, when they're forced to look within themselves and pull something out of the rank, seething madness within, something that'll actually translate well on the stage. Good thing Jed Diamond, head of acting at UT and the director of the lab theatre's production of King Lear , is teaching it to his students.

" King Lear is my favorite play," Diamond writes in the playbill. "[It] is a play of annihilating loss.... [I]t has the distilled power and lasting resonance of myth."

Alvin Epstein, the founding member of the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertoire Theater, never let Lear 's epicness weigh too heavily when he played the mad king last year in New York's East Village. He reminded his fellow actors that this is, after all, nothing more than a fairy tale, just your basic good versus evil yarn.

Maybe it is a fairy tale, in a sense, but it's also vile and disgusting, not the stuff dreams are made of, with fat wads of spit flying from the actor's mouths as they shout their iambic pentameter. When Zach Fine comes onstage as Lear during the first scene, sporting an odd mask (think Phantom of the Opera meets Midsummer Night's Dream ), he's about as far away from all the bloat and turgidity and Orsonian melodrama that has surrounded the role since, perhaps, 1956, back when Orson Welles showed us that slow pacing and grandiose pauses don't always work. In short, this ain't foppish Shakespeare, nor is it a lesson in literature.

It's raw humanity, stripped of the weight of history and literary importance. These characters breathe--and sweat. The odor fills the theater when Poor Tom contorts his body, often curling his toes as his body gyrates to a bizarre rhythm. It's madness, the syncopated beats of a mind misaligned. They're freeing Lear from its academic bondage.

Onstage, there isn't much to note. A few benches and a jointed stool, that's about it. But it isn't necessary to have anything more. Acting makes this play. The students in UT's MFA Acting and Design program have been working on their Shakespeare chops since December. After hundreds of hours in rehearsal--and countless more hours spent learning the lines, the right inflections, how to be a madman and whatnot--they've pulled it off.

The play can be experimental at times, like something from Stoppard's oeuvre, when Lear and his followers slink through the dark countryside, slogging through the rain and mud. The lights fade, and a slow strobe pulses. You'll hear it: Shakespeare's words are mishmashed together, building into a surprisingly creepy crescendo. All eight actors are onstage, crawling and flailing wildly, each shouting slivers of Lear's dialogue: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! ... Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world!/ Crack nature's mold... And so it goes, down into the psyche, where Shakespeare is at his most comfortable and, of course, most philosophical. That could be why audiences complained that Lear was un-performable.

Fetch me a better answer , Lear says at the height of his madness. To further explore the many layers of this play, and because there are only eight actors, the cast takes on multiple roles. And, what's most interesting, each actor plays the part of Lear at different times throughout the play, allowing everyone to give us their own personal interpretation of one of the most complicated characters in Shakespeare's canon.

Who is it that can tell me who I am? Lear asks during the first act. Later in the play, Lear gets his answer from the Fool, who becomes an unexpected and unorthodox philosopher. It's a line that's not even written in Shakespeare's signature verse; it's prose: He's mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse's health, a boy's love, or a whore's oath .

Who: UT's MFA Acting and Design Program