July 6, 2009

To kick off his 20th anniversary season as artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Robert Falls pulled out all the stops to mount an intense and intensely violent version of Shakespeare’s King Lear with a series of stunning visuals, complements of a design team including set designer Walt Spangler, Ana Kuzmanic for costumes, and Michael Philippi on lighting. Cast as Lear was Stacy Keach.

That was the Fall of 2006. Now, in the Spring of 2009, the same production with much the same design has taken the stage at Washington’s Sidney Harman Hall, designed by architect Jack Diamond for Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. Again Stacy Keach took the role of the king in his dotage.

Our times have no shortage of countries collapsing into chaos in the wake of the failure of their leaders to control the passions and jealousies of rival factions. That is the sad reason why Falls and his design team had no difficulty making Shakespeare’s tragedy of just such a failure into a modern morality piece by giving it a distinctly contemporary feel.

Spangler’s set design for the production takes the story from a brightly colorful beginning through ever darkening steps to a bleak world of dark grays, not that Spangler or Falls make the initial images too pleasant. While the play begins with a royal celebration for King Lear, which they place in a colorful but somewhat tacky palace ballroom dominated by a huge portrait of Lear in his younger days, they obscure a part of that set with a portion of a men’s room where Lear’s friend Gloucester introduces his illegitimate son to a colleague. They take up positions before stained urinals that let the audience know that Lear’s world has seen better days.

Spangler says that the footprint of the stages in the two theaters are fairly similar, but that the similarity ends there. The backstage and wing space in Washington is nowhere near as commodious as in Chicago and, says Spangler, “The tricky part was working the puzzle of the tight backstage area.” Then, too, the extraordinary height of the Goodman had allowed a pair of golden towers to flank the opening scene going up 36’. At the Harman, the re-created towers were just 16’ tall.

“We also had resource constraints” says Spangler. “In Chicago, as the opening show of a special season, we had a lot of resources allocated. In Washington, we had less to work with. We went through and made changes to almost every scene.” What is more, the sets from Chicago had not been stored so new structures had to be built from scratch. However, Spangler says “we were lucky that the props and much of the furniture had been in storage.”

One item that had not been stored was a Mercedes automobile that had been borrowed from a member of the Goodman’s board of directors for the run in Chicago. In Washington, they were able to find a wrecked Mercedes that had been stripped of practically all its equipment inside but presented an undamaged look on the side that would face the audience. Falls wanted the feeling that the occupants of the car—a mob-type entourage accompanying Lear’s tough guy son-in-law—had all been smoking as they drove. “We tricked it out with a mini-fogger so that ‘smoke’ would billow out when they opened the two down-stage doors. Bob loved the laugh that got,” says Spangler.

The brightly colored world comes undone in stages, with each scene less colorful than the one before. By the time Lear loses his last grip on reality in a fierce storm, it is essentially a monochrome world. That storm involved mounting the rain system they had used in the Goodman in the ceiling of the Harman where the clearance was not quite as wide so the nozzles had to be set closer together. “We set it more for mist than for rain and added more fans for wind,” Spangler says, explaining that the water was the reason they had gone with a black plastic Astroturf surface for the entire show. “It allowed the actors to walk on the surface in bare feet even when wet,” he adds.

Feet weren’t all that were bare under the mist. This is the scene played naked not only by Keach as Lear, but by Joaquín Torres as Gloucester’s legitimate son, who strips down to disguise himself as a dirty beggar. The mist effect seems almost cloudlike above the actors heads as backlit by Philippi.

Once the color has gone from the scene, horrors of another kind begin to pile up, literally. Junk drops from the sky; litter is everywhere on black Astroturf, and body bags are dragged on stage by medics as battle rages. Soon it seems all the available space is filled with the exception of a 4’ by 12’ opening at the lip of the stage, a mass grave into which those same body bags are unceremoniously dumped along with the body Edward Gero who plays Gloucester, Lear’s last supporter.

Another problem for Spangler was the Harman’s unique design as a hall adjustable for proscenium, thrust, semi-arena and even concert configurations. The wall behind the stage is a continuation of the rich, reddish cherry wood panels and screens that are featured throughout the interior of the hall. Spangler wrapped the back wall with black fire retardant plastic sheeting to complete the monochromatic dark world of the climax of Shakespeare’s play. 

From Chicago To Washington:
Falls’ Lear Remounted Three Years Later