There might be a good reason why no one in Nashville has staged King Lear for 20 years. It's an intense and potentially confusing tragedy of the highest order, and those planning on experiencing Nashville Stagecraft's new production may want to review the plot points and sort out their Gloucesters and Kents from their Albanys and Cornwalls before setting foot into the company's serviceable and surprisingly charming 130-seat venue.
Actually, in achieving his "literary renovation" of the script, director J.P. Schuffman has (understandably) removed some dramatis personae, but the resulting scale-down tends to undercut the play's political aspects, which are quite critical to understanding the main characters' broader motivations and the importance of the play's medieval setting.
Still, there remains plenty of dramatic meat on the table, and Schuffman has assembled 11 actors of widely varying abilities to alternately plow and ramble through the saga of the British king who — in a decidedly curious yet quite profound opening scene — foolishly and prematurely divides his kingdom among his three daughters.
Lear's intended early retirement goes badly, his daughters Goneril and Regan up to their eyeballs in greed, family disloyalty, lies, lust, betrayal, torture and murder — the Bard's infamous "unnatural hags." Meanwhile, honest, plain-talking Cordelia — Lear's youngest, whom he inexplicably disowns — reunites with her father before meeting her tragic end.
In search of dramaturgical logic in Lear, it's easy to wonder if the aged monarch was afflicted much earlier on by the dementia that ravages him in the play's later stages. At any rate, once he sets his "living will" into motion, he unleashes alienation, general disorder and military mayhem throughout his kingdom, and the audience experiences a full evening's worth of vile psychology, inhumanity and bloodshed, often expressed in unmatched dramatic poetry and some occasionally diverting swordplay.
In casting such a challenging piece, director Schuffman's foray into the Nashville community-theater acting pool yields mixed results — and it appears that experience performing the Bard's work was absent from most of the collected résumés. Phil Brady, a veteran presence, is Lear, and company co-founder Sara Gaddis is both Cordelia and Kent. They perform with sincerity, but the remainder of the mostly youngish cast is strictly hit-or-miss from one line to the next, and no one ever gains enough momentum to truly inspire. For example, Tony Shannon is well-cast physically as Gloucester, but the role's demands overwhelm him.
This is an adventuresome effort, and it's nice to have a chance to meet these particular characters in the flesh again, a rare opportunity on local stages. But the Nashville Stagecraft ensemble more often than not fails to render the play's astonishingly well-written speeches with the requisite emotive power and declamatory skill.
The Mad King Lear is an admirable attempt at reimagining a classic Shakespearean work, but the result simply doesn't measure up to the ambition.