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Larry Yando Delivers A Commanding King Lear

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 25, 2014 2:40PM

Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'King Lear.' Photo by Liz Lauren.

King Lear, as envisioned by Chicago Shakespeare’s artistic director Barbara Gaines, first appears as a sleekly dressed, self-assured monarch with a weakness for Frank Sinatra—not quite what you would expect from one of Shakespeare’s most egregious royals, famously driven mad by his own folly. Gaines, it seems, wanted to thread her Lear with the echoes of dementia, and uses “I’ve Got the World on a String” to reinforce the fact that Lear, having mistakenly disowned the one daughter who truly loved him, has instead untethered himself from sanity. But formidable Chicago actor Larry Yando, who plays the beleaguered king with a carefully constructed mix of wrath, inner turmoil and vulnerability, renders any such literary device unnecessary.

From the first few minutes of the play, Lear’s emotions and mental state are utterly transparent, and, as such, increasingly devastating. The aging Lear has recognized that it’s time to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and asks each to profess their love for him before granting their inheritance. Regan (Jessiee Datino) and Goneril (Bianca LaVerne Jones), both working to improve their own fortunes, pour on lavish praise, and Lear responds in kind. But when it’s time for Cordelia (Nehassaiu deGannes), the youngest and Lear’s clear favorite, to speak up, she instead falls silent, telling her father that no words can describe her love for him. “Mend your speech a little,” Lear cautions, “lest it mar your fortunes.” But she doesn’t, and he disowns her and leaves her to marry the King of France without a dowry or his blessing, clearly unable to recognize that Cordelia, in fact, is his one truly devoted daughter.

Almost as quickly as they earned their inheritance, Regan and Goneril began plotting to strip Lear of his remaining power. They turn him away from their homes and leave Lear, along with his Fool (Ross Lehman) and Kent (Kevin Gudahl), a devoted servant in disguise, to wander the storm-ridden heath. Yando delivers the infamous “blow wind and crack your cheeks” monologue with a manic cadence, and the moment that Mark Bailey’s towering set falls down around Lear makes for a powerfully wrought scene.

But Yando wasn’t the only actor with gravitas. A more subtle but equally compelling portrayal is Michael Aaron Lindner’s Gloucester, a nobleman who’s being manipulated by his illegitimate son, Edmund (Jesse Luken) to believe his other son, Edgar (Steve Haggard), is trying to kill him. Like Lear, Gloucester has misjudged his children and finds himself turned out of the kingdom and gruesomely blinded by Regan and her husband, Cornwall (Lance Baker), for supposed treason. (A graphic but potent scene.) But as Gloucester is led through the heath by Edgar, disguised as a beggar, his plainly spoken regret is true heartbreak.

It’s unclear what Bailey’s costume design, a mismatched smattering of ball gowns, pant suits and smoking jackets, was aiming for, but the lighting (Michael Gend and Kevin Adams) and sound production (Lindsay Jones) help make the play’s infamous tempest a truly admirable dramatic element. But ultimately, King Lear hinges on the quality of its raving monarch, and Yando delivers—ethereal odes to Frank Sinatra aside.

The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 9 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-5600 or online.