Nothing says “English literature” like “King Lear.” Written (and rewritten) by William Shakespeare in the early 17th century, “Lear” is the story of a Dark Age king who decides to retire. He divides his kingdom into three parts for each of his daughters, and he offers the biggest chunk to whichever daughter loves him the most. While two daughters adore this idea, young Cordelia won’t play ball. Lear is furious, so he exiles her.
What follows are two hours and 15 minutes of cruelty and despair – indeed, some of the most nihilistic moments in the Shakespearean canon occur in this single tragedy. Men die in battle. Women stab themselves. Poor Gloucester gets his eyes ripped out. Even the jester gets skewered. Meanwhile, Lear ends up homeless and crazy, and he wanders through driving rain in the middle of the empty moors. But lesson learned: When you’re done running the family business, just move to Florida.
So how does the granddaddy of Elizabethan dramas translate into Spanish? Very well, it turns out. The National Theatre Company presents a remarkably faithful adaptation at the Teatro de la Aduana, and you don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to enjoy it. Given the long monologues, it doesn’t take a dramaturge to figure out what’s going on, and the un-credited translation sacrifices old-timey poetry for coherence. (For example, I don’t believe the original folio uses “puta” quite so liberally.) The lines are brisk and accessible, as is the story. With its long-lost sisters and amnesiac protagonists, “Lear” is essentially a Renaissance soap opera, so the less confusion, the better.
Director Fabían Sales has crafted a darkly atmospheric production, complete with Rolando Trejos’ earthy medieval costumes and Fernando Castro’s minimalist set. Castro’s modular design takes its cues from Stonehenge; he uses a fog machine to make the stage as primeval as possible. The National Theatre Company boasts high production values and some of the finest actors in Costa Rica, which are worth far more than an $8 ticket. (Tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company in New York cost at least $77).
That said, “Rey Lear” has its weaknesses, starting with Lear himself. Óscar Castillo is big and bearded, which is a good start, but he’s also a teddy bear. Nothing about Castillo’s voice or body language screams “Celtic warlord,” and most of the time he bumbles around the stage like a rabbi with Alzheimer’s. This is a legitimate interpretation of Lear’s madness, but it’s much too silly to match Sales’ brooding backdrop. Last Sunday’s audience kept laughing at moments that should have been heart wrenching; they even chuckled at his death scene.
Other choices flirt with melodrama, like Sales’ cinematic soundtrack, or artificial mist so thick that you can’t identify which character is wailing. The most unfortunate aspect of “Lear” can’t be helped – the play is crushingly slow, and even this peppy Spanish translation still feels tedious at times.
What saves “Rey Lear” are some nuanced performances, notably the Fool (or “el bufón”). Lear’s existential fool is one of the greatest roles in theater, and Alex Molina’s mummer is unique. Instead of a hunched-over weirdo, Molina is a hip, physical, straight-talking clown. Rather than delivering his rhymes as cryptic oracles of doom, they sound more like jokes, and they actually make a Tico audience laugh. This is the advantage of rewriting a masterpiece in a new language: You can honor the original lines without getting stuck with the original words. Sometimes the Bard’s work is perfect and can’t be replicated. Other times, Shakespeare needs a puta.
“Rey Lear” continues through Dec. 1. Teatro de la Aduana, Barrio Carmen. 4,000 ($8). Info & Tickets: 2257-8305.