Conspiracies and conspiracy theories. Friends and foes. Power, politics and rivalries. Great stuff for theatre. Not so desirable to live through. An early conspiracy theory that emerged during the presidential primary cycles was that candidate Donald Trump was not really a Republican, was a friend of Clintons (who attended one of his weddings), and moreover, Trump was planted by the Clintons to destroy the Republican party process. Now after months of negative-campaigning, three vicious debates, and Twitter bullying, we have candidates who cannot tolerate being on the platform together, who refuse to shake hands civilly, and who challenge the voting before the counting has even started. What an atmosphere to see the story of power played out in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (Arena Stage) and Shakespeare’s King Lear (Blackfriar Theatre).
Striving to rule the world is an ancient story. Shakespeare produced King Lear in 1606, based on a published account of the 8th century BCE ruler of the British Isles. That places Lear at the time in which Romulus and Remus were founding Rome and Elijah was prophesying to the exiled Jews. Hellman produced The Little Foxes in 1939, as Hitler’s Third Reich began to solidify its domination of Europe.
King Lear is a family story about a king (Rene Thornton, Jr.) who wants to retire from the demands of ruling through a scheme to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, Goneril (Jessika Williams), Regan (Allison Glenzer), and Cordella (Lauren Ballard). Goneril and Regan fawn on Lear with praise and admiration. Cordella has none of this posturing, and therefore, Lear banishes her to marry the King of France (Zack Powell). Goneril and Regan spend the rest of the play destroying each other and neglecting their father. Cordella and the French army return to Dover intending to rescue the king and set the proper rule to Britain. She is hanged in prison and Lear dies in grief as the loss of his daughters and kingdom. Other in-fighting has occurred, such that only three loyal subjects are left alive on stage to put the kingdom back in order
The Little Foxes is set in the remnants of a plantation in 1900. The aftermath of the Civil War, 35 years previous, looms over the Hubbard family as they scheme about how to increase their status and wealth. The only member of the former southern aristocracy, Birdie (Isabel Keating), has married into and been bought out by the Hubbard family. The three Hubbard siblings, Oscar (Gregory Linington), Benjamin (Edward Gero), and Regina (Marg Helgenberger) are negotiating with a Chicago manufacturer, William Marshal (James Whalen), to build a cotton mill on the property. Regina, negotiating for her ill husband, Horace Giddens (Jack Willis), is holding out for a larger share of the potential profits. Benjamin and Oscar will eventually steal Horace’s railroad bonds to finance the deal. Regina will allow her husband to die on the staircase and blackmail her brother’s into allotting her the largest portion of the profits. The family is destroyed.
What stood out to me in each of these theatrical productions was the visual effects used to portray the power of politics. Certainly, the words had effects, such as the “Nasty Woman” quip by Trump in the third debate. But, what lurks over this campaign is his pacing across the stage during the second debate.
For King Lear the director set the major characters of each scene in center stage. The others either turned toward him or her, or moved around. The power and threats were directed toward that central action. It would culminate with Lear carrying Cordella out, hanged and dead. He sits center stage with Cordella in his lap, as Goneril and Regan lie, dead and shrouded behind him and everyone else turned inward toward the collapsed kingdom.
In lighting on the stage for The Little Foxes, two elements brought out this drama. Standing behind and looming over the center stage was the stair case which connected the public parlor of the Regina’s home to their private rooms upstairs, and on which Horace would collapse and die. In the parlor two lighting areas contrasted the power and visibility of different characters. Directly in the center of the room, the light was dimmed such that when Birdie stepped into this shadow to talk she was barely visible. In contrast, on the sofa where Regina often sat the lighting was bright and warm. All attention was drawn to her horrific beauty. A beauty that would eventually corrupt her and her family.
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series this week, the first championship win for them in 108 years. I heard an interview with someone this week in which he joked about Tweeting that after this election the Republican party will be so distrusted that they will probably not win a presidential election for another 108 years. Striving to win to such a degree, that one must destroy one’s opponents and the political system, leaves all the players destroyed on stage at the end. A few honest men and women will be left to rebuild the social structures. Let us heed and mourn Lear, the Hubbards, and the presidential candidates, for their fate is ours.