David Montee is “force of nature” in Interlochen’s King Lear
INTERLOCHEN,Mich.–King Lear, considered Shakespeare’s greatest achievement as well as the greatest tragedy every written, may not be light-hearted summer fare with which to celebrate the U.S.A.’s 241st birthday; however, it’s a timeless allegory that feels especially potent and relevant right now.
Composed at the turn of the 17th century, it offered a cautionary tale to a newly unified Britain under James I, dramatizing the horrifying consequences of political disunity.
Though the United States of America in 2017 isn’t exactly on the verge of civil war, no one would argue with the fact that we’re terribly divided as a nation. And the hawkish among us no doubt anticipate a kind of apocalypse resulting from leadership more committed to self interest, twitter, and less articulate narcissistic cries of “I am a man more sinned against than sinning” than to unifying the country.
As much as he has made ill-advised choices and appears to be descending into madness right before our very eyes and at the mercy of a political storm the likes of which this country has never before seen, the 45th president of the United States in his likeness to the titular character of Shakespeare’s finest play and the world’s greatest tragedy has nothing on the brilliant David Montee in Director William Church’s fine production of King Lear at Interlochen’s Shakespeare Festival, whose Lear is fascinating, complex, and magnificently rendered.
In his program notes Church is apolitical and describes the play as “the story of how a King becomes a man” and a “profound look into the heart of human nature.” It certainly is that—and so much more. The brilliance of this work, and one of the many strengths of this production, is that it can be interpreted in practically infinite ways.
The role of Lear is the pinnacle of any classical actor’s career, and Montee, though young for the role at 62, is more than up for the task. Longtime Director of Theatre Arts at Interlochen, he’s had a highly accomplished career as actor, director, teacher, and has recently announced his retirement. His command of the text and of his instrument on stage is nothing short of astounding. Though not very old, very large, or possessing a very deep voice, Montee is a force of nature as he convincingly portrays the tragic yet very human arc from most powerful man in the land to crisis of health, family, faith with a fiercely emotional and evocative performance.
And no small part of his virtuosity is the way he plays with others, drawing gorgeous subtleties and wonderful little inspired moments from the script and from his fellow players, many of whom he trained as his students. The surprising giggle or tug at a beard or loving glimmer in the eye, not to mention his guttural wails of grief, positively change the temperature of the outdoor Upton-Morley Pavillion.
Other notable performances include Skylar Okerstrom-Lang’s wonderfully dynamic and physically bold Edgar, especially in scene with bastard brother Edmund, embodied exquisitely with conniving sex appeal. Shelby Lewis and Sarah Pidgeon are downright nasty as Lear’s evil daughters General and Regan, respectively, and Jeffrey Nauman is a nuanced and commanding Gloucester.
Equally important to the success of this stunning production is Edward T. Morris’s inventive set, that looks like a U-shaped skateboard ramp made of wood, with balconies on each side, and a unique cyclorama and scrim that recreates the natural world. It draws the action on this deep stage closer to the audience, inviting deeper intimacy, and works beautifully with Brent Wrobel’s colorful shifting lights to delineate scene and mood changes as well as frame fight scenes nicely choreographed by William Church and Michael Liebhauser.
The implicit and explicit violence is handled tastefully; yes, all 11 terribly violent scenes are present, but, for example, the gouging out of eyeballs with boot spurs isn’t bloody, though it is utterly cringe-worthy.
It’s not just the extraordinary script, direction, acting, and technical elements that make this Lear remarkable. As is always the case at the Interlochen Shakespeare Festival, it’s the way the production works with the natural outdoor setting to more fully bring this drama to life. As the sun sets and the sky grows dark, we feel the coming storm (as well as hear it with sound effects playing throughout intermission to great effect) as nature animates the descent into darkness of the characters and the world on stage.
The audience shares the inhabited world on stage in every possible sensory way. And though the play offers no resolution, no real ending except the end of the world, it present palpable beauty with the final tableau and the shared experience of great art.