Two out-of-touch rulers lead this excellent 'King Lear' at the Guthrie


T. Charles Erickson

A Guthrie production of King Lear was always going to be a major event, but it’s one that’s gained eerie resonance since being announced last spring. An aging ruler, with autocratic leanings, demanding elaborate ballyhoo and exacting such rash vengeance that it brings ruin upon his family and nearly his entire kingdom? The Guthrie might as well save on advertising, since Lear is already on the front page every day.

King Lear

Guthrie Theater

It’s director Joseph Haj’s first Shakespeare production to be developed at the Guthrie (last year’s Pericles was largely imported), and he’s pulled out all the stops. The show boasts a towering set, a stunning production design, and an A-list cast that includes two superb actors alternating in the title role. It’s an opportunity to see two different Lears in the same production, and you’d be well-advised to take it: If there’s a show this season that will reward multiple viewings, this is it.

The precisely paced production begins as audience members are still taking their seats: Wait staff are positioning floral arrangements on a long banquet table in an impossibly vast hall with concave walls that rise up to the stratosphere in Marion Williams’ awe-inspiring set. As the play begins, doors open and the principals of Shakespeare’s epic tragedy spill onto the stage. They’re smiling widely, but they won’t be for long.

Lear’s three daughters, Goneril (Kate Nowlin), Regan (Sun Mee Chomet), and Cordelia (Kim Wong), take their chairs, ready to hear their father’s promised statement about the disposition of his empire. Meanwhile, we meet Gloucester (James A. Williams) and his illegitimate son Edmund (Thomas Brazzle), who hatches a scheme to disinherit Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar (Jason Rojas) in what starts as a subplot and then becomes the drama’s focus.

The two Lears — both Guthrie vets who are well-prepared to take the character to madness and back — are Nathaniel Fuller and Stephen Yoakam. Of the two, Fuller is the more regal and haughty: When he falls, he falls far. Yoakam is earthier, with a commanding presence but also warmth that adds a special poignancy to his final scenes with Cordelia. See both if you can, but if you have to pick one, go with Yoakam.

There are a lot of unforgettable roles in this classic play, and all the actors sink their teeth in. The cast doesn’t have a weak link, from the utterly commanding Brazzle to Shá Cage, whose small but crucial role as France provides a key to Haj’s respectful yet contemporary take on this material.

Composer Victor Zupanc and sound designer Darron L. West have created a propulsive soundscape that underpins the action, including a rumbling electronic cue that scores an unforgettable moment involving Regan’s revenge on the disloyal Gloucester. Through horror, humor, or hubris, this is a production that keeps your spine tingling and your head spinning.

King Lear
Guthrie Theater
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through April 2

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