Mike Barbour is not your King Lear from central casting. That’s only the first of myriad assets he brings to CNY Shakespeare’s production of King Lear at Cazenovia College’s Catherine Cummings Theater, 16 Lincklaen St. Usually cited as Michael Barbour, cut down to Mike in this show’s program, he’s short, bald and comes with the rounded belly of a leprechaun. A full white beard, grown in the last year, adds gravitas, however.
Long a Le Moyne College faculty member with Equity credentials, he’s been the go-to man for hard-to-cast roles in college productions as well as for the Gifford Family Theatre, resident at Le Moyne. Like a round-faced Alex Guinness, Barbour could be Obi-Wan Kenobi or Nick Bottom the weaver, if that was what’s called for. And no role in western drama calls for more stature and depth than Lear, as well as many multitudes.
Although conventionally cited as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear has an unwarranted reputation for difficulty and dourness. Part of audience reluctance to embrace the play is that we see it locally so rarely, only one earlier production in 30 years: director Michael Donald Edwards’ well-received effort at Syracuse Stage in April 2006.
In program notes for this production, director Terry LaCasse says that he sees Lear’s monarchy as a story of “dads, moms, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands” and compares it with Death of a Salesman. Much of the meaning indeed is on the surface, unlike, say, the Leonardo DiCaprio hits Inception and Shelter Island, and this production enjoys comic relief Salesman cannot provide.
A good preparation for watching Lear, better than reviewing your Cliff’s Notes, would be to see Meryl Streep as the aging Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Imperceptive Tories groused that they didn’t like seeing the most powerful woman in modern history reduced to indignity, fearing madness. That, of course, is why Streep, denied the chance to play Lear, wanted the role.
Barbour’s Lear starts out ahead of a prime minister: He’s an autocratic monarch free to indulge his arbitrary indulgences. Unlike Thatcher, he deeply regrets foolhardy decisions, and instead of merely fearing madness, he is consumed by it. What makes King Lear more demanding of an actor’s performance is that the mad Lear still compels, with body set and movement that would be comic with slightly different timing. These demands call up some of Barbour’s best moments.
Much of Lear’s prestige among Shakespeare’s works (some rank it higher than Hamlet), as well as Shakespeare’s supremacy among playwrights, comes more from the language than the action. Director LaCasse has opted for elevated American stage English rather than British accents. He draws on some old Le Moyne pals as well as strong people from community theater, and serves the poetry more ably here than we are used to in community theater productions. Among the players who really know how to speak are Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award winners Katharine Gibson (Goneril) and David R. Witanowski (Cornwall), opera singer Bridget Moriarty (Regan) and Todd Quick (Albany), as well as the Le Moyne people Steve Braddock (Kent), Sue Barbour (Gloucester) and Lauren Pisano (Cordelia).
It is here where Mike Barbour really comes into his own, delivering some of the supreme poetry of the language as if his life depended on it. Barbour was LaCasse’s teacher and also guided six members of the cast. His is a tide that raises all boats. About 10 years ago Barbour’s son Alex won a local Shakespeare recitation contest, which gives us an idea how long papa Mike has been working on these lines. Barbour’s voice heads toward the upper register, and as a singer he might be second tenor. That means his tone is silvery rather than golden, easily cutting through the horrendous din (courtesy of sound designer Kyle Cashel) in the storm on the heath.
LaCasse allows for two casting innovations, one of which is precedented. Lauren Pisano, a virtual star at Le Moyne (Rosalind in As You Like It, Daisy in Rhinoceros), is cast in the dual roles of Cordelia, the good daughter, and the Fool. Many authorities argue this was the convention in Shakespeare’s time, supported by a pun in one of Lear’s speeches. Pisano’s Cordelia is lovely, proud and restrained, but her Fool, with her face half-painted clown white, is forward and insinuating. No jester, the Fool is instead an adroit juggler, with a well-executed hat trick.
As hinted above, the benign Gloucester, whose fate parallels Lear’s, is here Lady Gloucester through the portrayal of Sue Barbour, another widely experienced performer. She has been an adulteress, producing the malign bastard Edmund and the gentler, more reliable Edgar. Historically, it is unlikely that a noblewoman would be conferring with well-placed noble guys in eighth-century Britain, but here the mutilation of her eyes at the hands of the vicious Cornwall is all the more searing with her high-pitched scream. Dramatically, Sue Barbour’s Gloucester gains in wisdom and power as her husband Lear accelerates his descent.
Generally speaking, in King Lear the older characters are more admirable than the younger. Shakespeare was 42 when he wrote it. Along with Lady Gloucester there’s the prudent and blunt-spoken Kent (Steve Braddock), who tries to guide his friend through the trouble he’s brought upon everyone with his rash judgment. For his candor he suffers the humiliation of having his legs restrained in the stocks, an outrage for a nobleman. Observing his plight, the Fool calls them “cruel garters.”
As for rotten kids, the Lears have two craven bitches while the Gloucesters suffer the evilest of them all. Katharine Gibson (as Goneril) and Bridget Moriarty (as Regan) are usually seen in highly sympathetic roles but clearly relish displaying their dark sides. An unnamed costumer, perhaps designer Amanda Nelipowitz, has decked the girls in black with red highlights, once putting Moriarty’s Regan in scarlet spike heels. Little wonder their dark delivery suggests the shedding of blood.
Creepy, dark-eyed Edmund (Nick Barbuto) makes his presence known early in the action, like a carrion crow foreshadowing trouble even while Lear is still rising high and in charge of his faculties. His relatively modest lines include the rallying cry, “Now, gods, stand up for bastards!” but Barbuto effects tone even more in the way he sulks and threatens. His legitimate brother Edgar (Zach Chase), with names that invite comparison, makes virtue compelling through a series of linked disguises. He gives voice to his mother’s hard-won wisdom.
As townies do not always attend Le Moyne’s Book and Buskin Theater Club student productions in large numbers, many audiences have not previously seen Mike Barbour’s depth and variety. An exception was his hilarious but horny middle-aged suitor in Brian Friel’s Lovers at Jazz Central in February 2011, which won him his first SALT nomination. Look for more recognition next year.
This production runs through June 23. See Times Table for information.