Since the beginning of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s current leadership under Artistic Director Matt Wallace, Louisville audiences have had the yearly treat of seeing Jon Huffman on stage.
He’s played characters that run the gamut of humanity, imbuing roles large and small with palpable life.
Given his age and his record of excelling in every role he’s performed, it has always seemed to me a foregone conclusion that at some point Huffman was destined to play King Lear, one of the most sought after and difficult roles in theater. This play — the story of a king who abdicates his throne, dividing the country between his three daughters — tackles the ravages of old age, descent into madness, and the folly of truth.
In the play’s inciting incident, Lear demands that his three daughters flatter him with flowery declarations of love. By the strength of their declarations, he tells them, he’ll choose who gets how much of his kingdom. One of his daughters, Cordelia, demurs and uses plain language to describe her love, despite the fact that it is clear her love is superior to that of her sisters’.
So it seems appropriate to similarly praise Huffman; he honors the part of King Lear “according to his bond, no more, no less.” His skillful performance serves the play rather than his ego, and he doesn’t feel the need to overstuff the part with extra drama.
It’s a trap that has beckoned many actors into a ham-fisted performance. Not that the role of Lear doesn’t demand some scenery chewing. In the moments that Lear must rage loudly — against his daughters, against himself and even against a massive thunderstorm — Huffman rages like no other.
The audience sees plenty of rage in the first hour of Lear, but as much as I appreciate Huffman’s ability to bring that thunder, I find humans are at their least interesting when they bluster and shout. Huffman it seems, agrees. In the second half of Lear, he goes gently, using introspection, soft humor, and quiet sadness to suck the audience in before wrecking them with the honesty of human frailty.
In the most powerful moment of the show, Huffman’s Lear sits next to his loyal vassal, the Earl of Gloucester, as portrayed by Jennifer Pennington. Gloucester asks Lear, “Dost thou know me?” Huffman’s hollowed out and quiet reply? “I know thee well enough.”
In that moment it’s clear Pennington also recognizes the need for simplicity.
I’ve often hinted — and frequently demanded — that Kentucky Shakespeare should give more and meatier roles to women. It’s a practice that is quite common in New York, London, and other epicenters of theater in the English-speaking world.
For this production, director Matt Wallace has finally given one of the company’s many excellent women an opportunity to bite off a serious role, and Pennington’s turn as Earl of Gloucester does not disappoint. Outside of Pennington’s great acting, the non-traditional casting proves the value of that practice.
Gloucester is the parent of two children, one legitimate, the other a “bastard.” The difference between the two drives much of Lear’s plot.
When Gloucester introduces his “bastard” son, he brags that his mother “had a son for her cradle ‘ere she had a husband for her bed.” The character adds, “Yet was his mother fair; there was good sport at his making.” In less polite terms, Gloucester is bragging, “I’m sexy, and have had some fun sex.” When a Shakespearean dude-bro delivers the line, it’s pretty icky. But seeing Pennington indulge in the sort of “locker room talk” is a joy.
The obvious fun engendered by this gender flip is all well and good. The substance however comes in the juxtaposition between Gloucester — who remains loyal to King Lear throughout the entire play — and the king’s two disloyal daughters, Goneril and Regan, ably portrayed by Abigail Bailey Maupin and Hallie Dizdarevic, respectively.
Among the daughters’ many faults and failures is a pronounced licentiousness; they’re creepin’ on the regular.
With a man playing Gloucester, there is a clear message in Lear; a nobleborn man sleeping around is permissible though perhaps unwise, but a nobleborn woman who sleeps around is pure evil. It’s “problematic” to say the least.
But with a lady of Gloucester instead of a lord, the meditation on sexual mores is a question instead of a statement, making the play richer.
The power of Gloucester’s gender flip in casting shows that more progressive policies in choosing performers deepen the Bard’s canon, giving Louisville audiences considerably more bang for their buck, no mean feat considering the shows are free.
Hopefully Pennington’s Gloucester presages things to come. Louisville needs casting like a woman as Hamlet, a trans person as Oberon, a queer Romeo and Juliet; in short, an ongoing and continuing re-examination of how we do Shakespeare, which in addition to showing us another side of of these plays, helps us explore our current society, thereby proving the oft-repeated assertion that Shakespeare is still relevant today.
King Lear runs until July 7th at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre in Central Park, 1340 South Fourth Street. It then returns July 10, 12, 18, and 21 playing in repertory with Kentucky Shakespeare’s other two offerings from this season, Henry IV Part Two and As You Like it.
Disclosure: Kentucky Shakespeare Associate Artistic Director Amy Attaway is also a fill-in host on WFPL. Sound designer Laura Ellis, who also worked on the production, is WFPL’s podcast editor.