Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

King Lear

International Shakespeare Center Santa Fe
Review by Mark Dunn

Also see Rob's review of Morning's at Seven and Dean's review of The Scarlet Letter

Clara West and Paul Walsky
Photo by John Tollett
Audiences around the world will soon have a chance to see the great thespian Sir Ian McKellen tackle what he says will be his last Shakespearean role, the ill-fated King Lear, in the eponymous and arguably greatest of all theater tragedies. Here in Santa Fe, the National Theater Live production will be screened at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on October 1.

Perhaps I will see it, but then again I have a reason not to.

In International Shakespeare Center Santa Fe's production of this 400-year-old masterpiece for the stage, I have now had the eye-popping pleasure of watching Paul Walsky, as Lear, deliver one of the finest performances I've seen in a lifetime of theatergoing. Walsky commands every moment of his heartbreaking portrayal of the ill-fated monarch. I could say his riveting performance is reason enough to see this production, but I'm afraid I'd be doing a disservice to the collective talents of a large number of people who have joined with Walsky to give Santa Fe, in this reviewer's opinion, the best theater offering of the year.

ISC's staging of King Lear is the culmination of a cavalcade of lectures, talks, workshops, close reading sessions, and other activities held around town in this, the “Year of Lear.” The production, which was cast a full year ago, has afforded those actors associated with this ambitious theater project the opportunity to dig deep into the text, and to rehearse the play with attendance to nuance and detail. The result is an unforgettable evening of theater. (And it literally is a full evening of theater, given that only minimal cuts have been made to the script.)

The convolutions of the plot are too many and the play's prospectus of universal themes too bountiful to put down here, though King Lear, at its core, shines a blinding light on power and authority and the degree to which each can be undermined by familial greed and human dysfunction. That a playwright in his early forties was so successful at crafting a work for the stage that so trenchantly examines the pitfalls of aging is a striking accomplishment in itself. And yet in so many other ways the play continues to resonate, move and shock its audiences over all these centuries, proving testament to its power even in our technologically sophisticated age to tell its story through the simple tools of heightened language and heightened emotion.

Though there will be those who will accuse this production of King Lear of Shakespearean purism, which in some manifestations sacrifices artistic innovation for period political correctness, there will be those—I among them—who will respect ISC's reverence for the play's origins and for delivering us a King Lear rich in its Elizabethan mien, its narrative uncluttered by high concept or preter-period military garb. Director Caryl Farkas's staging is both simple and imaginative; it also rewards those modern-day groundlings-at-heart who attend Shakespeare for the gore (and so, so much more). After all, the play does end, alack and inexorably, with the entire Lear family dead on the floor. (Also, sitting on the front row gave me the opportunity to get up close and personal with one of the Earl of Gloucester's gouged and airborne eyeballs—I did mention that this show was eye-popping!)

In addition to Farkas's wonderful direction, she is also responsible for the design of the period-sumptuous costumes. Even the knights and attendants are exquisitely arrayed. Vince Faust's set design is spare but visually evocative of the period. Skip Rapoport's lighting design and Ariana Karp's sound design do ample justice to the literal storm that takes the human maelstrom at the center of the play to the palpably literal. Karp also wrote a beautiful complementary musical score, subtly realized upon her cello and Charlie Hankin's violin. As a playwright who has never written a theater piece with need of swordplay, I'm tempted to give it a shot (or lunge?) for the chance to avail myself of Ambrose Ferber's fierce and exciting fight direction.

It's difficult to inventory the many wonderful performances that augment Walsky's Lear with anything more than a grateful nod and smile. All of the women who play principals in this production are excellent, Lynn Goodwin and Ariana Karp as sisters Goneril and Regan giving us new and frightening depths to the sinister cankering of the heart that defines these two conniving siblings. The talented performance of Clara West as Lear's favorite daughter Cordelia, erringly banished from her father's heart, belies her youth (she's fourteen), though this gifted young actress is no stranger to Shakespeare, having appeared in eight other productions penned by the bard. Mairi Chanel plays multiple roles—all male—with dedication and ease.

I enjoyed immensely Marty Madden's vulnerable and tragic Gloucester, and Geoffrey Pomeroy as Gloucester's scheming bastard son Edmund, who has a devilishly creepy way of drawing the audience into his diabolical confidence. Equally wonderful are Alex Reid as Edgar (Gloucester's "legitimate" son), the Gallant to his brother's Goofus, though Reid, in the guise of the madman Tom, masterfully presents a different variety of goof himself. The cast is rounded out by strong performances by Ambrose Ferber as the engaging Earl of Kent, Noah Segard as the villainous Duke of Cornwall, Marc Lynch as the good-hearted Duke of Albany, Glenna Hill, a dancing sprite of a Fool, Miles Blitch as the feckless Prince of Burgundy, and Dylan Marshall, who, as Duchess Goneril's loyal steward Oswald, is so effectively smarmy that I too wanted to kick and beat the crap out of him myself.

Bottom line: you perhaps owe it to yourself to see Sir Ian in the final role of his Shakespearean career, but if you aren't able to, I'm not going to say that Paul Walsky's mesmerizing Lear is the "next best thing." Because he is, in every jot and tittle of his performance, the thing.

International Shakespeare Center Santa Fe's King Lear, through September 30, 2018, at the Adobe Rose Theatre, 1213B Parkway Drive, Santa Fe NM. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00, Sundays at 2:00. Through September 30, 2018. For more information, please visit or call 505-629-8688. The running time, with intermission, is a little over three hours.