It's a tragedy of epic proportions. An aging king asks his daughters to profess their love for him in order to receive their portion of his kingdom. His eldest and middle daughters, Goneril and Regan respectively, ooze sappy sweetness of a love greater than life itself. But his youngest daughter, Cordelia, respects her father too much for such dramatic pretense. She tells him she loves him and respects him as a daughter should. How else could she love her future husband?
And so, predictably, Goneril and Regan, receive their generous portions and Cordelia is banished, as is the ever-loyal Earl of Kent for defending her and pleading her case to the King. At the same time there are two men present she is to choose to marry and in the moment of discovering her now lost dowry, one declines. The other pledges love regardless.
It is the story of Shakespeare's "King Lear," of course. What ensues after the opening scene described above is nothing short of monstrous. Goneril and Regan turn on one another, their father, and their families. And greed and lust rule the day.
Meanwhile, Cordelia remains steadfast as does the Earl of Kent. There is battle and escape and betrayal and by the end the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester have been gouged out; dead bodies are strewn about, and nothing is as it should be; except for the final moments between Lear and Cordelia.
Cordelia has never stopped loving and respecting her father as she always has and as the two face a lifetime in prison, Lear extols the joy of being locked away with such a loving child with whom he will wile away the hours in story and song while they are imprisoned.
Of course, that is not to pass, Cordelia is hanged and Lear, now frighteningly mad, dies. A new king is crowned and the proverbial curtain falls. Only a stone would be unmoved by the bone chilling sorrow.
The starkness of Dallas Theater Center's production breathes with desperation. The stage is all but bare. And the set is sparse and dreary and industrial. The costuming is modern, verging sometimes on the post-apocalyptic and beguiling simple.
The daughters wear dresses of a solid color. But after the intermission, many of the male cast members wear Matrix-like battle wear. Cordelia channels Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. And the King.... well, the king begins in pants and a shirt but is later stark naked; stark, skinny, aged, raw, and naked.
When Lear sheds his clothes, it storms not only in the script, but also in the theater. Water pours down from above and the King stands beneath a downpour. He is mad and lost and no longer knows who he is, where he is, or what is going on around him.
Although he does occasionally snap into reality, it is not enough to notice that the "stranger" who has been protecting him is from his own court and the wild wanderer who he meets is Edgar, the Earl of Gloucester's son and heir.
Brian McEleny's portrayal of Lear is impossible to look away from, from his near lucid beginnings to his pitiful end. He almost appears to literally shrink from the opening scene to the closing. Some may call him shrill. Others may argue he yells.
But neither is true. Or if true, his tone is certainly justified. McEleny embodies not just Lear but any man who loses himself to dementia. He is lost and his only support are the very people he has turned away. It makes the heart ache and the eyes open to the despair and horror that aging can bring.
Goneril is portrayed with the required venom. She makes it easy to hate her. But somehow Christe Vela plays her with just a shred of compassion so as to make her suicide at the end feel not triumphant but instead serve as further proof that what happened is about the state of man, his greed and self-possession, and how far away from one's self such things can take you.
Angela Brazil as Regan was convincing, but not as strong, sometimes veering into speaking the lines and not living them. The same goes for Phyllis Kay as the Earl of Gloucester who actually sometimes sounded as if she were simply doing a Shakespearean reading and verging into the melodramatic. (Yes, the Earl of Gloucester was played by a woman, as a woman, which works perfectly, by the way.)
Still when the Earl of Gloucester's eyes are gouged out you find yourself cringing and looking away despite the fact that the act itself is hidden from the audience. In other works, she, like everyone in the show, commands sympathy and understanding no matter how dastardly the deeds.
Abbey Siegworth plays Cordelia with equal parts strength, warmth, and vulnerability. It is her authenticity that lends the heart to this production and it is the fallibility with which she instills the role that makes it impossible to not ache for Cordelia and her father. Steven Michael Walters' portrayal of Edgar also requires mentioning. Second to Cordelia, there is no more pitiable character and Walter's portrayal is flawless. Lee Trull does an excellent job as Edmund, the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son. He makes him particularly despicable, making the story all the more painful.
King Lear is unarguably one of Shakespeare's masterpieces and unless one feels the need to feign a command of the classics through a criticism of another's interpretation of the same, there is little to take issue with in Dallas Theater Center's production. They have proven themselves master interpreters of the Bard season after season.
The tragedy leaves the soul bare. The production leaves the mind afire. The combination leaves no reason to miss Dallas Theater Center's "King Lear."
"King Lear" runs through Feb. 17 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. in Dallas. For info or tickets, call 214-954-9925 or visit http://www.dallastheatercenter.org.