Big Lear, little Lear: when size matters

Bag&Baggage's lean version in a big space and NW Classical's full version in a tiny space tell the long and short of Shakespeare's tale

Nearly a half-century ago, Pete Townshend wrote what must be one of the most frequently quoted of rock-song lyrics: “Hope I die before I get old.” That line has been cited ad nauseam as an uncritical pledge of allegiance to youth, as a self-imposed term limit on hipness. Pay attention to context of the song My Generation, though, and it’s clear that the line implies something else altogether – an ethical standard.

“Things they do look awful c-c-cold/I hope I die before I get old,” it goes, and the meaning is, “Hope I die before I get old and start acting like they do!”

Would that Goneril and Regan, those sharper-than-serpent-toothed sisters in King Lear, had adopted that attitude. The old man decides to kick back in royal retirement, and no sooner has he handed over his land and power than the daughters are surpassing him at self-serving callousness and caprice.

Maybe it’s just coincidence that it’s the youngest of Lear’s daughters, Cordelia, who shows a spirit of loving kindness and honesty. Then again, Dad always liked her best. Until, of course, she’s a bit too honest for her own good.


Kevin Connell is Lear at Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography

Kevin Connell is Lear at Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography

So begins one of the most famous family feuds in all of the theatrical canon. The oft-told tale is onstage again in the Portland area, in two very different versions:  a radically revised yet historically rooted adaptation by Bag & Baggage, and a surefootedly faithful rendition by Northwest Classical Theatre Company.

For a set of plays all written by the same person (let’s just go with Stratfordian orthodoxy; it’s easier), Shakespeare’s works sometimes can seem like they’ve come from different planets, so divergent are the possible production approaches. What sets these two shows apart isn’t just directorial choice. The most striking differences in the theatergoer’s experience relate to the spaces they’re in.

NWCT works in Southeast Portland’s Shoebox Theater, where no seat is more than a yard or two from the action, and naturalism and nuance can be there for the taking. Configured as it is for Lear, the capacity is 36. On the two long sides of the severe thrust, the front row is the only row: Don’t stretch your legs.

The Venetian Theatre, a beautifully restored old movie palace in downtown Hillsboro, has a dozen times as many seats, and a surfeit of space even at that. The high ceilings make the room feel immense, in a way that threatens to swallow live performance. The stage is set markedly higher than the seats, forcing much of the audience to look up at it. The downward rake of the stage mitigates the awkwardness, but creates its own peculiar visual angle.

As places to watch theater go, the Venetian isn’t a bad one, just an odd one. As pieces of theater to watch, the Bag & Baggage Lear fits the same description. Working from a bevy of sources, primarily Shakespeare’s King Lear and an antecedent of unknown authorship called King Leir, B&B artistic director Scott Palmer has created a streamlined adaptation with just five characters – the king, his daughters, and a man called Perillus. The idea, as Palmer described it in a pre-show speech and in the program’s director’s notes, was to strip away the grand political allegory and keep the focus on the main event of the royal family’s fraught relationships. After all, those four are the most emotionally resonant characters and the bedrock of the many iterations of the mythical tale, before Shakespeare and since.

In practice, however, it doesn’t turn out to be such a swell approach as it sounds. The bad sisters still plot the diminishment and banishment of the ex-Rex, then win a tussle with a French Army, and Palmer cleverly gives the caretaking function of the King’s Fool to a disguised Cordelia. But without the sub-plots involving Gloucester, Edmund, Kent, etc., it’s mostly about Lear’s mistake and mad meandering. As Charles Boyce writes in Shakespeare A to Z, that “principal action can hardly be called a plot at all; it is simply a progression, taking the central character from vanity and folly, through deepening madness to a recovered consciousness and ultimate collapse.”

More importantly, the parts about politics, in Shakespeare’s version, aren’t just about politics. They echo, vary and deepen the contemplations of love, loyalty, authority, ambition, power, justice and so on that make the core family relationships so resonant in the first place. I spoke to an audience member who said Palmer’s approach had made the daughters more understandable; I thought the opposite. We learn a lot about them by watching them interact not just with their father and each other, but also also with their husbands, their underlings, their enemies.

Kevin Connell plays Lear with a raspy voice and an edgy, worried affect that tilts readily into storm-tossed anguish and wild-eyed delusions. The other performers – Rebecca Ridenour as Goneril, Jessi Walters as Regan, Stephanie Leppert as Cordelia, and Benjamin Farmer in the catch-all role of Perillus – declaim a little too demonstrably, but calibrating passion in such an unwieldy space can’t be easy.


Ted Roisum is Lear at the Shoebox. Photo: NW Classical Theatre Company

Ted Roisum is Lear at the Shoebox. Photo: NW Classical Theatre Company

The NWCT cast at the Shoebox has no such airy obstacle. The room allows for an energizing immediacy – kudos here especially to the stage combat choreographed by Gavin Douglas – and director JoAnn Johnson not only moves her 15-member ensemble adroitly around the narrow performance space, she also makes you feel the alternating currents of psychology and emotion between the characters.

The show’s visual designs are spare, with a bit of a low-budget feel, but in terms of  narrative clarity and performance, this is a satisfyingly well-shaped production. The sparring between Melissa Whitney’s Goneril and Brenan Dwyer’s Regan balances the curt and the courtly, and you get a clear sense of the stakes whenever they cooperate or compete. There’s something to admire in all the performances, and only one character interpretation – Lauren Modica’s downcast Fool, all nurse and no needle – struck me as notably off the mark.

Best of all, the Lear here is the redoubtable Portland stage veteran Ted Roisum. If the sound of Connell’s Lear is like torn parchment, the sound of Roisum’s is like weathered mahogany. Indignation burns and churns in him like magma. There is bullying and bitterness in this Lear, but also biting wit and touching tenderness, self-pity and self-awareness.

 “The younger rises when the old doth fall,” says the evil schemer Edmund. But sometimes the old aren’t really falling, they’re acting. And if they’re really good at that, they get to put their stamp on King Lear.


Bag&Baggage’s Lear continues through March 23. Schedule and ticket information here.

Northwest Classical Theatre Company’s King Lear continues through March 30. Schedule and ticket information here.

2 Responses.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    Despite my mother’s constant iterations of “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth” whenever I balked at doing such chores as setting the table, this review of these two productions of King Lear makes me want to see both of them.

  2. Sherry Lamoreaux says:

    A day or two after seeing Bag&Baggage’s Lear, it occurred to me: What if the tension between Lear and his two older daughters had to do with incest? What if his longing for Cordelia was not entirely platonic? I’ll see this again, with that in mind.BTW, there is a discount code for tickets:DOVER10

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