For every Romeo, there is a Juliet. For every Othello, a Desdemona. For every Cleopatra, an Antony.
And for every Lear, there is a Fool.
King Lear, William Shakespeare's tragedy based on the legendary King of the Britons, is noted as one of the bard's greatest works. The Vortex Theatre's version of the play takes place against the backdrop of World War II. King Lear (Paul Ford) is weary, ready to shed his kingly duties to his three daughters: Goneril (Lori Stewart), Regan (Meghan Bode) and Cordelia (Amelia Teicher). Lear asks his daughters to profess their unwavering devotion and offers a portion of his kingdom in return. His eldest daughters, Goneril and Regan, shower their father with embellished endearments, salivating over the bit of map representing their new estates. But his youngest (and most favored) daughter, Cordelia, will not compliment Lear with words beyond her true feelings, telling the king she loves him no more or less than any daughter should.
Infuriated by Cordelia's unwillingness to comply, Lear hands over the third piece of land to Cordelia's sisters and decries all attachment—paternal and royal—to his youngest child. Cordelia sorrowfully leaves with her suitor, the King of France (Joshua Narcisso), and the seeds of Lear's self-inflicted insanity are sewn.
Free of his responsibilities but not his title, Lear enjoys life with his Fool (Alan Ware) and a merry band of knights and loyal servants. But his oldest daughters want their father to act more his age and less kingly—keeping the power for themselves. Feeling betrayed and half-witted, Lear falls into madness and the rest of the world soon follows suit.
King Lear is not an easy play to produce, but it can be a rewarding one. Director David Richard Jones—whose impressive theatrical résumé includes founding the Vortex Theatre, serving as its artistic director from 1976-78 and teaching Shakespeare, drama and 20th- and 21st-century literature at UNM—knew the challenge in choosing this play. Given the cast he selected to fill it, it's easy to see why he settled on Lear.
King Lear is a powerful role, one that could define an actor's career. Lear is vain and venerable, wise and clueless, stoic and stark-raving mad. With so many variables, there are infinite ways to portray Lear on the stage, and some equations turn out better than others. Jones must've had Paul Ford in mind when he proposed Lear to the Vortex, as his performance is the triumphant keystone of the production. Ford's delivery of Shakespeare is like watching a child recite his favorite nursery rhyme—with ease and excitement, the words taking shape in how they are served. The nuances of language are not lost to Ford, and his love of each poetic line is apparent throughout the entire play.
While Ford is clearly the star of Lear, the rest of the cast is far from superficial. The Earl of Gloucester, portrayed by Charles Fisher, is a crucial character connecting the main story line (Lear and his daughters) with the subplot (Gloucester's bastard son's desperate grab at power, with tragic results). Fisher captures the noble if sometimes misguided Gloucester skillfully and gives one of the best performances in the cast. Also noteworthy are John Wylie for his Bostonian-inspired Caius (the banished Earl of Kent incognito) and John Byrom as Gloucester's son, Edgar, especially when disguised as the likable lunatic Tom O'Bedlam.
A few other performances are stiff and hard to digest. Teicher captures Cordelia’s emotions but channels the tension straight to her hands, causing a distracting effect. Jeff Andersen embodies the conniving bastard son of Gloucester, Edmund, to the point of melodrama. But the overall quality of the acting is above par.
And then there’s the Fool. Played by former Barnum and Bailey Circus clown Alan Ware, Lear is most himself when the Fool is near. As Lear is a role coveted by actors, so is the role of his Fool, and Ware's background in mime and ability to engage a crowd made him a standout presence whenever on stage. The tension and admiration shared between Ware's Fool and Ford's Lear does justice to the timeless characters. The moments the two share are on their own worth the price of admission.
The Vortex Theatre presents King Lear, written by William Shakespeare, directed by David Richard Jones, every Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. through April 27. Tickets are $12. Call 247-8600 or visit www.vortexabq.org for reservations.