King Lear has long been my favorite Shakespeare – I love a raging family drama. The Barbara Gaines production of Lear at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre last night conjured others – Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. All are plays that include a family protagonist past his prime.
I did not expect King Lear to make it into a Musical Me post, but as the lights come up on Gaines’ production, we find the king lounging on a sofa using a remote to flip through Frank Sinatra’s blaring greatest hits. As is common in Shakespearean theatre, Gaines has created a modern performance, but her styling isn’t too modern – at intermission and afterward we were thinking the 1940s. But in the final act there’s a David Hockney paining from 1967, and of course stereo remotes weren’t all the rage in the 40s either, and Sinatra’s prime was the 1950s. Clearly, by not being too specific, Gaines was going for universality, and in the program notes she takes up the subject, “Quite honestly, they could be wearing costumes from 700 A.D. or 700 B.C. Everything would be the same because human beings haven’t changed a whole hell of a lot.”
Relatability is important to Gaines, a key figure at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, as it is to everyone who continues to find Shakespeare worthy of performing for modern audiences. In particular, the seed of this production of Lear, the third by the master artistic director, was planted in Gaines’ head by the aging and death of her mother. Gaines goes on to say, “I do hope that most people will connect with this production because so many of us have witnessed the tragedy of a mind giving way to dementia.”
It was with her aging mother in the next room watching television and Sinatra simultaneously blaring from the radio singing: “Where do you go/When it starts to rain/What do you do/When the nighttime comes/Where do you go/When your heart’s in pain/These are the things/That I want to know,” that, for Gaines, conjured “Lear, out on that heath.”
The juxtaposition of Sinatra and the modern set/costumes and Shakespearean dialogue works quite well – the dystopic nature of the play is well suited to other features of the play’s temporal setting being incongruent. It all adds up to a presentation of the absurdity of the human condition, of the trappings of power and age and empire. The dramatic lighting and stage effects as Lear wanders the heath add to the absurdity; the production values are high and the cast is excellent.
In a hat-tip to the fundamental ephemerality of the connection between Lear and Sinatra, the program notes ask Gaines, “Does the music serve as a spark to Lear’s memory?” and Gaines replies, “A spark to memory or a spark to forgetting. Or a spark of insight or a spark of sheer depression and guilt. Or a spark of love. It is definitely ignition.”
I’m pretty sure we all felt the spark.
Thanks for reading.