There’s no reason for this show to be three hours long.
I know that sounds pedantic, but it’s true: the world premiere production of Lear—Marcus Gardley’s blues-heavy Shakespeare adaptation (through October 2 at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda)—proves that a script packed with everything is a script in need of an editor.
Lest you think I’m some Gardley neophyte, I’ve been a longtime admirer of the Oakland-born playwright since performing in a development reading for one of his scripts alongside Lear performers Velina Brown and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong. (There was also some guy there named Daveed Diggs.) That’s what makes Lear so frustrating as a Gardley fan: he’s better than this. A lot better. That’s all the more apparent when compared to 2017’s black odyssey, another Cal Shakes world premiere directed by Eric Ting, remixing classic text through 20th century Black pop culture.
His choice of adaptation this time, as the title clearly suggests, is King Lear. For those unfamiliar: The eponymous ruler (James A. Williams) feels his age and decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, Goneril (Mbele-Mbong), Regan (Emma Van Lare), and the king’s favorite, Cordelia (Sam Jackson). When Cordelia declines, stating that no piece of land could equal her love, Lear banishes her.
This initiates a power struggle between the elder two daughters along with their conniving husbands, Albany (Kenny Scott) and Cornwall (Dov Hassan). As that’s going on, the Duke of Gloucester (Michael J. Asberry) is similarly showing preference for his youngest son, Edgar (Dane Troy), over the out-of-wedlock-borne Edmund (Jomar Togatac). To prove his worth, Edmund now has his eyes set on Lear’s throne.
That’s the basic outline. Gardley moves the story to 1969 San Francisco, when the Fillmore was “the Harlem of the West”—something the city’s gentrifying administrators were eager to end. There are several scenes taking place in jazz clubs, everyone is dressed to the nines (via costumer Lux Haac), and Velina Brown’s “Black Queen” character occasionally croons into a Shure Brothers microphone as Scott Bolman’s lights give her an ethereal glow. (Brown’s character serves as a one-woman chorus, setting the scene and informing “the scholars in the audience” that “this won’t be your grand-mother’s Shakespeare.” The inclusion of the character is one of many elements borrowed from non-Lear Shakespeare, like Romeo and Juliet.) Add in Edgar being a Black Panther (in training?) and you have a potentially explosive work on hand.
Unfortunately, Gardley does nothing with all that he has. It’s as if he grabbed one of everything from a buffet, but has no idea where to start eating. Part of the problem is that, despite occasional updates to the dialogue, he hews so closely to the Bard’s plot that whenever modern (for 1969) issues pop up, they’re awkwardly shoe-horned in, as if the script had to meet a quota. One minute, we’re in the soap opera of political machinations, the next minute, we’re meant to weep seeing a family displaced. The tonal whiplash is so exhausting and frequent that the play ends with a soliloquy by Kent (the always-wonderful Cathleen Ridley) seemingly apologizing for it.
Another problem is the source material combined with the timing of this opening. King Lear is a story celebrating the monarchy. I couldn’t help but think back to this past January when SF Mime Troupe’s Michael Gene Sullivan (husband to Velina Brown and in attendance opening night) sent out a newsletter lashing out at the “we come from kings and queens” cliché because it devalues everyone who isn’t a royal. Add to that the recent death of a colonizing royal—whose ancestral namesake commissioned Shakespeare’s plays—which has people openly calling for the end of the British monarchy.
The world doesn’t need figureheads or sovereigns given power by “the divine right of kings,” it needs more power in the hands of the plebes and proletariat. (There’s a cringe-inducing moment in Lear when Edgar coins the term “Power to the People” like he’s Marty McFly “creating” Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.)
If Gardley wanted to make a story about generation gaps and a rapidly-changing world, perhaps he should have adapted The Tempest? As it stands, his grasp of Shakespeare isn’t as strong as his grasp of Greek drama in black odyssey. That may have something to do with the fact that Greek works are always translated, whereas King Lear is the work of someone who knew the English language better than any of us ever will.
Gardley’s dialogue can strike lighting—such as when “bastard” Edmund declares “I was born to be a rebel because… I was born.” Or when The Comic (Jackson) asks “What is it about the words ‘Black’ and ‘Power’ that makes people so sensitive?” But most of the monologues are overwritten pontifications, as if Gardley were giving everyone the first draft of a TED Talk. black odyssey worked with this because these pontifications were few and far between; in Lear, they’re every other line, stopping the play cold and stretching out the run time.
What’s more, Lear’s woke-ish declarations ring hollow. The final monologue may praise Black women, but it’s hard to take that seriously after three hours of watching Black women (Goneril and Regan) act as moustache-twirling villains. Plus, the only queer-coded character, a servant played by Kenny Scott, is a villain whose death plays his “fey” characterization for laughs.
I know it isn’t fair to constantly compare Lear to black odyssey, but the similar pedigree makes it inevitable. Both were directed by Cal Shakes’ outgoing artistic director Eric Ting (whose pre-show curtain speech got a standing ovation). Alongside Aurora Theatre’s Dawn Monique Williams (Lear is a co-production between Cal Shakes, Oakland Theater Project, and Play On Shakespeare), the co-directors know the power of their cast and tap into it beautifully. Despite the aforementioned tonal whiplash, they know to push pathos when the dialogue tries for chuckles.
As Ting’s production as AD, Lear works as a tribute to his skill with actors and instinct for seeking out and developing new works. It’s a shiny feather in the caps of he and his collaborators. For Marcus Gardley, Lear is a bloated exercise in cultural binge-eating. When you’ve experienced just how great his work can be, anything short of that standard sticks out like a sore thumb. Let’s hope his next script has the necessary focus to match his ambition.
LEAR runs through October 2nd at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda. Tickets and info here.