Patrick Page Astounds as KING LEAR at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Washington D.C.

Patrick Page | Photo: DJ Corey Photography

Nathan Pugh
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April 14, 2023 4:00 PM

No matter what time period it’s performed in, William Shakespeare’s play King Lear has always found political resonance with audiences. King Lear is a tragedy recounting the troubled reign of a monarch after he decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. The show premiered on December 26, 1606, and Shakespeare knew that audiences of that time might be familiar with Sir Brian Annesley, a court administrator whose daughters tried to have him declared mad. King James I also attended the December 26 performance. Three years earlier, James warned his eldest son Prince Henry, “by dividing your kingdoms, ye shall leave the seede of division & discord among your posterity.”

So when Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) announced that they would be putting up King Lear, I predicted the political resonance of performing the show in the nation’s capital could prove overwhelming. I was proved somewhat right: today, there are constant echoes of Shakespeare’s drama in the news. President Trump’s indictment and his children’s rush to defend him mirrors the familial inheritance struggles written by the Bard. U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein’s struggles with physical health and memory loss feel eerily reminiscent of Lear's afflictions. Even the media tycoons of the Murdoch family have an awareness of the television show Succession, itself a contemporary riff on King Lear

It would be easy for STC to explicitly point out these political resonances, highlighting the prescience of the Bard’s play right here, right now. Luckily, this production directed by Simon Godwin understands that works like King Lear achieve their canonized status due to deeply emotional dramas that audiences themselves can connect to reality. Godwin and the entire STC team have brilliantly rendered the emotions of King Lear in all their messiness and glory. Most importantly, they’ve given actor Patrick Page the opportunity to deliver a career-best performance in the title role.

Lily Santiago, Stephanie Jean Lane, and Rosa Gilmore | Photo: DJ Corey Photography

Godwin sets this production in a dictatorship-like state somewhere in the late 20th century. Within a cavernous plane hangar at the start of the show, a militaristic Lear asks his daughters to declare their love for him. While Goneril (Rosa Gilmore) and Regan (Stephanie Jean Lane) hide their disdain and profess adoration, Cordelia (Lily Santiago in my performance) refuses to ingratiate herself. This sets off a chain reaction of tragic events: Cordelia is disowned and banished, Lear fears the rejection of his daughters and spirals into isolated madness, and Regan and Goneril get involved in political plots. Running parallel to this, the Earl of Gloucester (Craig Wallace) struggles with his two sons: the illegitimate Edmund (Julian Elijiah Martinez) is jealous of his brother Edgar (Matthew J. Harris), leading to conspiracy allegations and Edgar to disguising himself. In classic Shakespearean fashion, these two familial struggles intertwine in complex and surprising ways.

Much of the power of King Lear hinges on the lead actor’s performance: they must be convincing both as a powerful political leader, but also as a confused, child-like elder. Page performs the contradictions of Lear’s personality with gusto and masterful skill. He’s an utterly domineering presence at the start of the show, sharpening Shakespeare’s words into daggers that glint with beauty even as they pierce through all of Lear’s scene-partners. 

As the show continues, Page isn’t afraid to make his Lear into a comic presence. Page’s musical theater work (including everything from Hadestown to Schmigadoon!) has often relied on his subaltern bass voice for humor and exaggerated villainy. It’s thrilling to see Page use that same voice to craft moments of delicate introspection and utter fear. Page’s delivery of the line, “I am a man / more sinned against than sinning” illuminates the phrase as an accusation, a rumination, and acceptance of defeat all at once. Every single moment with Page is like this: he unearths mountains of meanings in Shakespeare’s words, yet makes the words feel spontaneously and intuitive to his take on the king. 

Lily Santiago and Patrick Page | Photo: DJ Corey Photography

The ensemble around Page also does great work, but it’s the characters around Page’s orbit that get the most chance to shine. As Cordelia, Santiago is heartbreakingly delicate when attempting to reconcile with her father. As Edgar, Harris expertly embodies the layered role-playing of his character, and his scenes with Page bubble with danger and promise. Although scenes without Lear don’t crackle with that same electricity that Page brings onstage, the fight scenes choreographed by Robb Hunter are bloody, vicious, and gasp-inducing. Director Simon Godwin condenses this King Lear into two acts that feel contemplative and exhilarating in equal measure. 

It’s the elemental beauty of this production that makes the few culturally specific elements of this show feel out of place. Much of this production feels like it could take place anywhere; it’s a beautifully diverse cast across gender and race. So when the confidante-turned-servant Kent (played wonderfully by Shirine Babb) adopts a somewhat patois accent while in disguise, I was intrigued and confused. I wasn’t sure exactly what the motivations were for taking on this accent in this show. What exactly was this place’s understanding of race, or even of the Caribbean? Within the world of the show, Emily Rebholz’s fabulously colorful outfits and Daniel Soule’s sets recall a 1980s Dynasty glamor: it’s a bubble of ultra-rich decadence about to be burst with violence. I wonder, though, why the design team would visually signal a specific time without doing the same for a specific place. The steel beams and walls combined with the 1980s aesthetic seem to obliquely reference authoritarian regimes from that time period, from the U.S.S.R to the Philippines to even Latin American countries. Yet none of these real-life places cohere much dramaturgically in the anachronistic, abstracted land of this production.

Thankfully, despite these moments of cultural dislocation, most of this King Lear production at STC works because it trusts its audience to draw connections to politics. As King Lear, Patrick Page surpasses any fleeting resemblance to a specific political figure to become a real person: broken, struggling, vengeful, and terrified. To see him perform is a privilege that I’ll never forget. I’ll remember Page’s last plea for forgiveness no matter what politician is currently in power.

King Lear is in performance at Washington D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company through April 16. A limited number of virtual tickets are available to stream the show on demand through April 16. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Nathan Pugh

Nathan Pugh is a writer, culture critic, and essayist based in the Washington, D.C. area. Nathan graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Theater and English (concentration in race/ethnicity), where he also served as the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Wesleyan Argus. Pugh’s work strives to explore how intersectional identities are staged, with his current long-form writing focusing on Black gay playwrights from Virginia.

Washington D.C.
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