The biggest surprise in Bedlam’s deliberately provocative (or audacious, or infuriating—I’ll let you choose your adjective) King Lear, now on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre, is not that the entire dramatis personae are played by six women (Zuzanna Szadkowski is featured in the title role; five others are cast in multiple parts). Nor is it that director Eric Tucker, who certainly loves his scenery on wheels, has set the play in an ever-changing environment of mirrored panels, including one scene that looks like a dressing room at Filene’s Basement.
No, the real shock here is the running time—100 minutes or so—though I’m betting that will come as a considerable relief to many audience members. As the program notes explain, “What you will see is roughly half the text of Shakespeare’s play, only the scenes in which Lear is present.” What’s left is also rearranged.
Um, OK. I should also add that the period setting is indeterminate. So (as seen here) are the remaining shards of plot.
Do I need to say that all of this imposed considerable challenges to a viewer? I doubt it. But somewhere around the midpoint, having tired of hating it, I decided instead to challenge myself. “Self,” I said: “What if you let go of all your preconceived notions about King Lear, and simply watched this without judgement… and as if it were something else?”
And so, I did. And while I can’t say that I found it ultimately satisfying, through this new lens, the show did hold flashes of interest. Virtually all of them involved Szadkowski, who is an actor of considerable power and dimensionality, even—or maybe especially?—when cast against type.
Though the script pronouns remain unchanged here, Szadkowski’s Lear is clearly female. And not just a generic female—sporting a posh, sparkly coat and dragging around a large leather handbag, haranguing everyone in sight in base Brooklynese, this King is an archetypal Jewish harridan. (As in, “Hello, Goneril? This is your mother. Do you remember me?”) Some of it is quite entertaining, most of all when Tucker and company push the envelope most outrageously, as in a storm scene that could come straight out of a Jerry Lewis movie.
Frankly, I think this production is best considered as a bold actor exercise—what happens when you take a particular scene as far outside the accepted “given circumstances” as possible. Some of what Szadkowksi did was fascinating on its own terms. (As for the other actors, not so much.) Frankly, she was far more gripping than Glenda Jackson’s ghastly incarnation last season on Broadway, though that is about as faint as praise gets.
In any normal sense, it’s difficult to consider Bedlam’s King Lear as recommendable. More often than not, Tucker’s production seems like an exercise in “épater la bourgeoisie” smart ass-ness, and one imagines that the director is very pleased with himself. But this is deconstruction without reconstruction. Where’s the sophistication in that?
King Lear plays through February 16. For more information, visit the Bristol Riverside Theatre website.