The Yale Repertory Theatre’s “King Lear,” directed by Harold Scott and starring Avery Brooks, may be one of the only Shakespearean productions that employs an omnipresent 30-foot stone statue of a face as its principle prop. But this is no ordinary envisioning of the Bard. This version of the classic tragedy about madness and treachery is set among the Olmec people, who lived between 1200 and 400 B.C. in present-day Mexico. Scott imaginatively employs evocative music, elaborate costumes and expressive choreography to breathe new life into the play. By exquisitely coordinating and intertwining the emotive elements of the play, the director creates a piece of theater that feels more like a movie.
At the beginning of the play, the eponymous king is hailed by his on-stage retinue. From this moment, the play becomes decidedly colored by its Olmec aspects. Prompted by the announcement of the king’s presence, a parade of villagers, led by three pageant dancers (Nyle Clemons, Shayla Foreman and Ashley Morrison), begin an elaborate, minutes-long choreographed dance to welcome Lear.
After this dance is completed, Lear asks his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, to proclaim their love for him in order to receive a share of valuable land. Goneril and Regan, eager for their portion of the kingdom, flatter their father shamelessly. Cordelia, the youngest, remains reserved, expressing affection but unable to bring herself to empty pandering. Lear, furious, disowns Cordelia and sets the stage for the myriad tragic developments that will unfold throughout the play.
Scott’s choice to set the story in Olmec society is an inspired one. The move helps prevent the material — which has been faithfully interpreted countless times in its nearly 400 years of existence — from becoming just another excellent but uninspiring iteration of Shakespeare. The modern viewer is treated to a fresh take on the classic; old themes are imbued with new life. In addition, because the play is so dramatic and fraught with passionate emotions, the ancient setting, so far removed from modern experience, helps to heighten the sense of intrigue and excitement.
The props are highly effective in establishing the setting and creating a mood. The large stone statue of an angry-looking face remains present in the back of the stage for the entirety of the show and helps create a tempestuous atmosphere. The statue is huge, imposing, and a little frightening; its dissatisfied face seems like an angry providence-type figure watching the needless bloodbath disdainfully. Also, large turquoise panels with bright orange carved drawings hanging in the background give the scene some color and the drawings evoke a tribal feel. Finally, an astonishingly realistic sheet painted to look like a cloudy sky is used very thoughtfully throughout the latter half of the play. Depending on how they are lit, the painted clouds alternately represent different moods — such as the tempestuous storm in Act III or the blessed moments of clarity and saneness that Lear enjoys in Act IV before the final bloodshed of the last act.
The technical qualities of the play are well-orchestrated. Brass and string musical interludes (composed by Anthony Davis) play behind important soliloquies and moments of contemplation and inner turmoil. The production incorporates dropping and rising trap doors, which lower deceased characters off of or raise props onto the stage, but these never interrupt the flow of the play because the actors never pause to wait until an item is fully raised or descended but merely continue acting around the mechanization.
The acting is superb. Brooks, an experienced actor who played Sophocles’ Oedipus in the 2003 Athens Theatre Festival, delivers a nuanced performance as the dejected, mentally deteriorating tragic king. He is well-supported by the three royal daughters — Marie Thomas as Goneril, Petronia Paley as Regan and Roslyn Ruff as Cordelia. Goneril is especially developed as a character; Thomas successfully plays the sycophantic and treasonous Goneril to the hilt with exaggerated obeisances and wild conspiratory gestures.
Centuries after the heyday of Shakespeare, listening to iambic pentameter speeches sprinkles with “prithees” and “wherefores” can turn a modern viewer off to the Bard’s beautifully intricate stories and writing. By transplanting them into an entirely new culture, Scott transforms the very identities and essences of the key players in “King Lear,” producing a fresh interpretation and an opportunity for new reflection on the classic. The tweaking is refreshing because its changes emerge from amplifications of latent themes and their transportation into plausible new setting. This gem is fit for a king.