THEATER REVIEW: “King Lear” @ Beck Center by Laura Kennelly

Through Sun 6/30

Shakespeare’s King Lear shines with fresh light in this subtle and brilliant Beck Center production. Director  Eric Schmiedl has created a new view of this familiar classic by ditching frills, fancy  costumes and elaborate sets. It’s nothing like the King Lear you might have been forced to read in school (of course, if you liked it then, never mind this sentence.)

The Studio Theatre set designed by Walter Boswell consists of a series of blocks and planks — all painted black. This stark setting does nothing to distract from the human tragedy we see developing before our eyes when King Lear in his pride and folly divides his kingdom among his daughters and demands verbal assurance that they love him most of all.

Simple costumes created by Kerry McCarthy seem fitting for any period (gowns, generic military uniforms). In an effective touch, decorative trappings of rank (crowns, jewels, scarves) are distributed before a word is spoken (and collected in the same manner at play’s end). The point is made: glory and rank are transient. (And that Nick Sobotka’s Duke of Burgundy wore a burgundy suit added a clever touch.)

Benefitting from their own considerable skills (plus the tight confines of the Studio Theatre), the fine cast made us hear Shakespeare’s words clearly as we watched the interplay of  jealousy, fear, love and ambition that this story lays before us.

Robert Hawkes’ persuasive King Lear seemed every bit the “retired” CEO who really couldn’t retire — until the last scene when he realized that he had wronged the one he loved most (Danyel Rennee Geddie’s Cordelia). As the play underscored, both Lear and Cordelia shared a stubborn and ironic loyalty to the importance of words.

Not so with Lear’s two other daughters: Julia Kolibab as Goneril and Lisa Louise Langford as Regan. Words were nothing more than sound for them. Both Kolibab and Langford played “mean girls” with spirit and verve, especially when they were romancing Edmund (Daniel Telford).

I’m an Anne McEvoy fan, so casting a woman as the Earl of Gloucester worked well most of the time. At play’s end, the blinded McEvoy elicited pity and her resolution to carry on after her “fall” brought admiration. Gloucester and her son Edgar (James Rankin), who accompanied the banished earl, created a tender portrayal of filial and maternal love. Rankin was convincingly crazy in his disguise as an “insane” (and super athletic) beggar.

However, Gloucester is supposed to have two sons, the legitimate son Edgar (James Rankin), and the bastard son Edmund (Daniel Telford). It’s a stretch to think a female (and McEvoy wore women’s clothes)  could get away with that — even if she were an earl. And even if she did, wouldn’t both sons legally be the product of her marriage? Ho hum: Details details details.

Others in the cast included Brian Pedaci as Albany, Rodney Freeman as Cornwall, Jeffery Allen as Lear’s Fool, Shaun Patrick O’Neill as Oswald, Tyler Collins as the King of France, John Stuehr as the Old Man, and David Hansen as Kent.

BOTTOM LINE: A don’t-miss production that, taken overall, exemplifies what Shakespeare’s King Lear is all about: the power of  human connection (aka true love) and the impermanence of worldly trappings.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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