"Such groans of wind and roaring rain, I never remember to have heard," shouts the Duke of Kent above lightning sounds in Act Three of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's kinetic production of Shakespeare's King Lear. Luckily, despite ominous clouds looming above the pine trees and red tiles of the outdoor Mary Rippon Theatre, the rain stopped falling minutes into the performance, only to fall again the moment the audience finally left their seats. Within that beneficent window, another miracle took place: the growing humanity of a tempestuous king as he crawled his way out of purgatory toward a spiritual redemption.
Not that CSF requires real rain to create a storm: guest artist Raye Birk's Lear, with his severe visage and physical energy, might end up with his own hurricane named after him if he keeps this up. A good production of this play demands a big presence in its center, and Birk delivers solidly. He portrays a flawed, violently impulsive King, but adds enough friendly backslaps, hearty laughs, and authentic tears that we, like Kent and others on stage, forgive him for whipping the knife out once in a while.
Stylistically, director Elizabeth Huddle makes some interesting decisions. To begin the play, for instance, the cast emerges wearing contemporary clothes, but soon dons more traditional Elizabethan attire. This historical ambiguity is also expressed in the set, which consists of a balcony situated around the contrast between gnarled bare trees and the more modern square wooden panels, sharp lines and all. At times, the style reaches back even further into the past, reminding us of the play's pre-Christian setting. An initial dance sequence, accompanied by drums and bells, combines with the dusty setting to create a tribal feeling evocative of an aboriginal ceremony.
Shakespeare has a habit of making his most deplorable villains into some of his most fascinating characters. Such is the case with the amoral Edmund (Timothy Carter), illegitimate son of Gloucester, who intermittently addresses urbanely ironic speeches toward the audience, nearly stealing the show in the process. Carter drawls such lines as "Now, God, stand up for bastards!" with such charisma that we can't wait for his soliloquies because it means we don't have to share him with the other actors.
The garishly dressed fool, for his part, leaps around making flamboyant simian poses and mugging. He's a sort of childish wraith, not quite human--almost an animal spirit. As a result, his character becomes less a focus for pity and more a source of psychic disruption to mirror Lear's madness. CSF's trademark slapstick works most effectively during the storm, when the play's built-up tension is released as the dam breaks in a surreal explosion of chaos: Philip Griffith Pace, as Edgar's alter ego Tom, the weedy "philosopher" of the wild, whoops it up like a lunatic, adding a fantastical, grotesque element to the proceedings.
Huddle makes at least one other strange and thought-provoking move that works to decenter gender just as she decenters historical context: the same male actor plays both the Fool and Cordelia. Granted, it takes time to get accustomed to a wavy-haired male Cordelia who looks vaguely like a glammed-out Mark Bolan from T. Rex, but I would guess the effect is intentional.
Just as Lear slowly becomes accustomed to the dissonance of Cordelia's message, so we grow to accept the odd effect of an unexpected presence on-stage. Perhaps a more traditionally beautiful Cordelia would have resulted in an overly sentimental reconciliation scene at the end: in any case, the father and daughter connection here is particularly moving, showing that Cordelia's wisdom knows no gender.