Joseph Marcell of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Plays King Lear

Alex Mugnaioni as one of Lear's men and Joseph Marcell as LearEXPAND
Alex Mugnaioni as one of Lear's men and Joseph Marcell as Lear
Photo by Ellie Kurttz

A production of Shakespeare’s King Lear imported from the Globe Theatre in London stirs all sorts of expectations. Surely no one can do Shakespeare better than the Brits. And besides, the play is one of the most highly regarded works of literature in the English language. It’s a tragedy of immense scope, its motifs of aging, madness, generational conflict and so on indisputable aspects of the human experience that, one way or another, affect us all.

But expectations — like Lear’s expectations of his daughters — seldom play out as we hope they will. We are often disappointed and sometimes, as in Lear’s case, devastated.

The Globe’s current touring production isn’t devastating, but it certainly is disappointing. Directed by Bill Buckhurst, it’s a stripped-down affair; the ensemble has been reduced to eight, with the performers, excepting Joseph Marcell (Geoffrey the butler on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) who plays Lear, assuming dual or multiple small roles.

The tech is also limited: The set is a rough two-tier wooden edifice, and lighting as an element of the dramatic spectacle is eschewed entirely. During the storm the performers are responsible for producing the sound, in full view and rather primitively. And in a departure from standard, the house lights are left on throughout the play. We’re told this before the play actually begins, the announcer noting that it will enable the performers to see us, just as we, the audience, always get to see them.

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Why? One could assume Buckhurst was trying to recreate the 17th century audience experience, when theater was staged mid-afternoon in full daylight. Or perhaps this choice is part of his general purpose — to curtail the formality of the theater-going experience and create more of a sense of intimacy between the players and the viewers.

Whatever the reason, the end result isn’t a good one, as it strips the story of its grandeur.

One could argue, as I have, that when performances are powerful enough you can do without accessories. I stand by that. Unfortunately, the greatest liability in Buckhurst’s vision is not the limitations of lighting, set or sound, but of Marcell’s performance in the title role.

While it’s a good thing to make a towering figure like Lear human and accessible, Marcell’s dethroned monarch is so foolish, ornery, thin-skinned, tyrannical, bawdy, petulant and mean that he is impossible to warm to. That the performer substitutes eardrum-splitting vocalization for any effort to conjure up the heart or soul of his mad bereft character is even more of a turn-off. This Lear achieves no dignity, and learns nothing. (And neither do we — which may account for the many emptied seats following intermission the evening I attended.)

The other performers mostly do good work, and in a couple of cases are notable in their ability to facilely slip out of one persona and assume another. They include John Stahl who portrays both the blinded Gloucester and Goneril’s temperate husband, the Duke of Albany, and Alex Mugnaioni who depicts both the upright Edgar and Regan’s ignominious spouse, the Duke of Cornwall.

Their craft, however, cannot make up for the way in which their multiple role-playing confuses the spectator, fractures the narrative and spoils the story.

The Broad Stage, 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica; through Nov. 16. (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com


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