A ruler with a needy ego is losing his grip on reality. He demands flattery, rewarding public praise and affection even when it's mere affectation. He punishes those who dare to tell him the truth, eschewing facts in favor of a fantasy world of his own making.
Don't jump to conclusions. We're talking about a figure from England's mythic middle kingdom. In his poignant and elegant "King Lear" that opened over the weekend at the Guthrie Theater, director Joseph Haj does not overtly call attention to the contemporary echoes that suffuse Shakespeare's tragedy. He doesn't need to.
In "Lear," an aging monarch decides to divide his property among his daughters based on their avowed love for him. Eldest daughter Goneril (Kate Nowlin) ostentatiously declares that she loves her father "more than words can wield the matter … beyond what can be valued, rich or rare."
Middle child Regan (Sun Mee Chomet) tries to top her, saying "I profess myself an enemy to all other joys which the most precious square of sense possesses."
Youngest daughter Cordelia (Kim Wong) says that she cannot lie. "I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less."
Displeased with that answer, Lear banishes her and the Earl of Kent (J.C. Cutler), who tries to stand up for her.
The last time the Guthrie presented "Lear," in 2007, Ian McKellen poured out the mad king's psyche in a Royal Shakespeare Company import. Haj has tapped two Twin Cities heavyweights who may not possess McKellen's fame but bring their own formidable gravitas to the role (they alternate performances).
On Friday, Stephen Yoakam took up Lear's cracked mantle with nobility. Saturday, it was Nathaniel Fuller's turn and he, too, was magisterial. Like two different lead singers fronting a band, each lends distinct phrasings and cadences to the same arrangements.
Yoakam is the earthier of the two actors, with a quaver and tremulousness that suggest his words and feelings arise not just from his viscera, but from the ground he stands on.
From his forceful banishment of Cordelia and Kent to the end, when he comes in like a Jesus figure with a crown of twigs, Yoakam's Lear radiates deep appetites, and thus the ripples of his unraveling shoot out further.
Fuller seems more ethereal. His Lear, farther adrift in his own world, sometimes floats above the action, a feather looking for a soft place to land.
Both arrive at the same place in the end, tugging our heartstrings as a once-great figure who's become a lost, whimpering child who needs a comforting hug.
The production has a secondary story line revolving around the Earl of Gloucester (James A. Williams), a Lear loyalist who also misjudges his children.
His bastard son Edmund (Thomas Brazzle) schemes for his father's favor at the expense of his legitimate brother, Edgar (an admirable Jason Rojas, who stepped in on short notice). When Gloucester tries to protect Lear, he is cruelly blinded by Regan and her power-hungry husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Howard Overshown), in a memorable scene that involves a corkscrew, a drink and one of Regan's shoes.
Fuller and Yoakam anchor a cast that delivers unevenly. Chomet is superb as Regan while Brazzle is brilliant as the conniving Edmund, even though his passion sometimes overwhelms his lines (it doesn't help that the sound is echoey at times). But as Goneril, Nowlin oddly chooses to accent her character's power with a walk that would be more appropriate to a fashion runway than the stage.
Haj brought together a top-flight design team. Theater legend Jennifer Tipton created the suggestive lights while Jennifer Moeller dressed the actors in gorgeous costumes and Tony nominee Darron West created the ominous soundscape.
The action plays out in a half-circle set by Marion Williams that suggests a ritualistic temple. Often achingly beautiful, this is a production that speaks through the ages to our time.