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King Lear at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

King Lear

 By William Shakespeare

Directed by Barbara Gaines

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Machine Gun Lear In Chicago

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater has weighed in with what it must hope will be its flagship production of the new season, and it is filled with action and pace. There remain fault lines in the structure, however.

Inevitably, the success of this great work relies on the performance of the title role, and by and large, Larry Yando does deliver, but it is a Lear of uncertain depth. This Lear, rather than majestic and impressive, is more magisterial and domineering, reminiscent of Pacino’s Scarface, with the first half consisting of a great deal of screaming, and bullying of his flunkies. His later dementia had a comic nature, eliciting laughter from the audience, but with little tragedy in it. His sense of rejection by Cordelia was played with aghast irritation rather than wounded love, which meant his huge exposition of grief at the end was strangely unmoving, impressive as was the performing of it.


With the exception of the extraordinary staging of one of the most memorable ever speeches, Lear’s ‘Blow wind and crack your cheeks..’ being shouted by him with his back to the audience, the production’s modern dress style was filled with engaging movement and visually skillful staging. The attention never wavered, even though it was like watching a foreign language play at times.This reviewer was seated at the extreme right of the thrust stage. Perhaps because of this, most of the language was unintelligible, with actors facing away. Added to this this was the indistinct delivery of the text, with actors allowed, or directed, to speak with great speed, as they would a Mamet text, often with poor enunciation and vocal projection.

lear55There were notable exceptions to this, John Byrnes’ beautifully voiced Duke of Burgundy among them, Steve Haggard, Ross Lehman and of course, Larry Yando. The gouging of the eyes of Gloucester was gripping, but to anyone without knowledge of the storyline, it would have been a mystery as to why he was condemned a traitor, the plot being subsumed beneath the unclear speech,with everyone speaking their own idiosyncratic, prose version of the bard, eschewing the vital rhythms intrinsic to the greatness of the playwright. Each person’s easiest access to the generalized hyper-intensity of the evening’s performances appeared to have been to yell angrily at the person in front of them.

In an inexplicable copying of a famous Buster Keaton stage effect, director Barbara Gaines has the entire edifice of the set fall over, with Larry Yando having positioned himself to have the open doorway save him from being squashed by the huge wall. When you are wondering whether or not the set is going to hit the leading actor on the head, the production has lost you.

The sisters Regan and Goneril, seduced by the modern style, behaved like a pair of crowing ugly sisters, leaving Cordelia to sound like a beautiful, pleasing Cinderella by comparison, but even she got ‘in Lear’s face’ at times, leaving dignity and depth of passion aside in favor of point scoring. Steve Haggard gave a constantly watchable performance, and the soldiers were suitably military in their obeisance, but their automatic weapons looked strangely out of place.

No doubt the faithful will find enough in the production to enjoy, but the effect in the end, although never boring, was unsatisfying in the hands of this director.

*** of  ***** (three out of five stars)

Saul Reichlin

Date Reviewed: September 17, 2014

Jeff FRecommended

For more info checkout the King Lear page at

At Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, Chicago, IL,  call 312-595-5600,, tickets $48 – $78,  Wed. at 1 & 7:30 pm & Thurs. & Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3 & 8 pm,  Sundays at 2pm, running to 2 pm, running time is 2 hurs, 45 minutes with intermissin, through November 9, 2104