Shakespeare’s tragedy requires a great actor in the title role, an imaginative director and set designer, and a professional cast, even in the smaller roles.
Trinity Rep, in a unique collaboration with the Dallas Theatre Center, scores an A+ on all fronts.
The lengthy (2 hours and 45 minutes) play moves smoothly through two acts, the first set on a stark bare wooden stage with only a chair placed at the center. The actors appear through a series of doors, followed by King Lear (the brilliant Brian McEleney), who holds your attention through the entire play as he shows his rage toward his three daughters, disinheriting Cordelia, his youngest (Abbey Slegworth), and driven out – and driven mad – by his other daughters (Angela Brazil and Christie Vela).
McEleney has captured the essence of a man filled with rage, shouting at the world, and eventually losing it completely. Today we would call it severe dementia.
The subplot concerns the Earl of Gloucester, who is destroyed by his evil son. Director Kevin Moriarty has cleverly changed the male role to female without altering the essence of the story. Phyllis Kay is now the confused, grieving mother who holds faithful to her other son and to Lear, acts which cause her much pain, both mental and physical.
“King Lear” is a difficult play to follow at times, and in the hands of the wrong company can be a boring, confounding disaster. But this is Trinity Rep, folks. And with the addition of actors from another great company, The Dallas Theatre Center, where the play will be presented later in the season, “King Lear” reaches new heights.
Michael McGarty’s simple set is upturned, literally, at the stormy end of the first act, complete with more water coming down from above than witnessed in “Singing in the Rain.”
Stay in your seat during intermission and watch the hardworking stage crew completely transform the set for act two. While they are drying things out, the actors are drying themselves backstage.
The play becomes more volatile in the second act, as Shakespeare kills off many of the characters. Moriarty has chosen a strange combination of knives, guns and sticks for the battle, with nary a sword in site. Costume designer William Lane has the actors in modern clothing, although the play is timeless.
While the spotlight is rightfully on Brian McEleney as the King of Britain, there are other outstanding performances by the supporting cast. Abbey Siegworth and Christie Vela come to us from Dallas, joining Angela Brazil to present three very different daughters. Trinity’s talented Joe Wilson Jr. joins Dallas’ Chamblee Ferguson and Trinity Rep grad Grant Chapman as their husbands.
While “King Lear” is unquestionably a tragedy, comic relief and some clever insights are provided by the king’s fool, played with passion by Stephen Berenson.
And then there is Oswald, the steward to Lear’s oldest daughter. The role is written as a minor character, but for veteran Fred Sullivan Jr., there are no minor roles. He takes the words written by the Bard and makes them ring with his clever asides and gestures, giving us additional – and much appreciated – funny moments amidst some very tense scenes.
This production of “King Lear” is Shakespeare at its best. It has the Trinity touch that has made our own Rhode Island treasure shine through the 49 years of its existence. It is a classic not to be missed.
A gentle warning: There is one realistic violent scene and some male nudity, neither of which I found the least bit offensive and both adding to the intensity of the production.
“King Lear” is at Trinity Rep, in the intimate downstairs Dowling Theatre through October 21. For tickets, call 351-4242.