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THEATER REVIEW : Powerful, Inspiring 'Lear' at Chapman U's Waltmar

August 15, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Alan Mandell had plenty of time to rehearse for the granddaddy of Shakespearean roles, King Lear. Perhaps he has been rehearsing all his life. At times it seems he may have been rehearsing too long.

When GroveShakespeare in Garden Grove went belly up and shut down suddenly last summer, Mandell had been ready and waiting to take on one of the most physically and emotionally demanding of all roles; the closing was just days shy of his first performance as Lear.

The festival's closing must have seemed like a cruel joke, like a scenario invented by Mandell's old friend Samuel Beckett. Now Shakespeare Orange County finally presents the actor at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre.

Mandell's is a vocally powerful Lear, inspiring also to see, with his flowing white hair and that beautiful tragedian face and those haunted eyes. The bad news first: Mandell's Lear is weak in the crucial middle passage, when the King first realizes the cataclysmic error he has made in giving his kingdom to his two daughters, Goneril and Regan. When he rails against them in the "O, reason not the need!" speech, he falls into a kind of Shakespearean oration that is pre-Olivier, with much affect and rolling of the Rs but not much psychological realism, rather like the kind of Barrymore-ish "ACTing!" that John Lovitz mocked on the old "Saturday Night Live."

As long as he is fighting madness, Mandell's Lear undercuts the perfection of his appearance and voice. Things improve once he stops railing--that is, once Lear accepts that he has been shorn of office and authority and is simply "unaccommodated man," naked on the heath, facing the elements, his own nature and the nature of those who used and betrayed him. Lear can only understand power when he is stripped of it and love when he has true need of it. The old Lear mistook obedience for love.

"King Lear" is also about appreciating the value of something that does not flatter you--people in power have such difficulty with that one. When Lear asks his daughters to praise him before he divides his land to them, he invites insincerity. He cannot hear Cordelia's honest and plain reply amid the glittering falsities of her sisters.

Once Lear revokes her dowry, Cordelia is rejected by the Duke of Burgundy, her intended husband, while another suitor, the King of France, looks on in disbelief. France sees Cordelia's true worth. "Will you not have her?" he asks Burgundy. "She is herself a dowry."

If Lear could have seen what France sees, he would not be cast out of society and into madness. But then he would have already been the man we see him become--wise, compassionate, without vanity. This man Mandell becomes gracefully and movingly if not brilliantly.

The proof that Lear must have been a very good monarch before the play's start is in the loyalty that his Fool and that Kent show for him long after they have nothing to gain from it.

As Kent, Carl Reggiardo is a warm big lug, full of decency but with a plebian grasp of the meter. Michael Nehring is a strange Fool. With his pudgy physique, pigeon-toes and tattooed head, he looks like Dom DeLuise wandering into a "Mad Max" movie. He is not a distanced observer but a hysterical Fool who seems to take Lear's plight harder than Lear himself.

For balance's sake, director Thomas F. Bradac might have given us a more measured Fool; his distress crowds the play, particularly in the trial scene, in which Lear condemns Goneril and Regan in absentia.

Of the three sisters, Kamella Tate's Regan is the most complex, moving from nervous stabs into full-blown evil with the help of hearty cups of mead. Renata Florin is a tightly clenched Goneril. Lisa Steele, unfortunately, simply does not yet have the chops to attain Cordelia's great stature and goodness.

As Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, Wayne Alexander brings a kind of Rob Lowe unctuousness to the role and is quite entertaining. John Shouse as Duke of Albany also is quite good. Suzie Goff's set is simple and suggests that Lear's kingdom was a barren, mean place from the start, with rough wood planks for floors and burlap as a backdrop. The costume design by Lyndall Otto perplexes--it's part Robin Hood, part Ben Hur, part Native American, with tie-up suede boots and moccasins and lots of browns.

The time and setting of director Bradac's Lear may be vague, but that matters little when Lear and Cordelia are reunited in a place where forgiveness and generosity flow, which we recognize as heaven on earth. No matter what its flaws along the way, this Lear gets us there, and that's where we all want to be.

* "King Lear," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 301 E. Palm, Orange, Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 3 p.m. Ends Sept. 10. $16-$23. (714) 744-7016. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes. Carl Reggiardo Earl of Kent

Daniel Bryan Cartmell Earl of Gloucester

Wayne Alexander Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester

Michael Strickland Edgar, son to Gloucester

Alan Mandell Lear, King of Britain

Renata Florin Goneril

Kamella Tate Regan

Lisa Steele Cordelia

Michael Barak Duke of Cornwall

John Shouse Duke of Albany

Derek Stephan King of France

D.J. Berg Duke of Burgundy

Christopher Duval Oswald, steward to Goneril

Michael Nehring Fool to Lear

A Shakespeare Orange County production. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Thomas F. Bradac. Scene design by Suzie Goff. Costumes by Lyndall Otto. Lighting by David Darwin. Sound by Craig Brown. Original music by Chuck Estes. Production stage manager Heather S. Moore.

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