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Two area companies, Raleigh's Honest Pint Theatre Company and Fayetteville's Sweet Tea Shakespeare, have joined forces for the first Triangle production of King Lear in ten years, presented in William Peace University's Leggett Theatre. Each organization supplies considerable talent and expertise, resulting in a lively staging that emphasizes more humor than most productions. Despite some awkward blocking and troubling technical choices, as well as a virtually uncut text (clocking in at three-and-a-half hours, with one intermission), the production is a worthy one that offers a number of fine characterizations from its cast of fifteen and much food for thought in its uncanny reflection of today's headlines.
King Lear has the most range to express, and Simon Kaplan's characterization explored much of it. His Lear was cantankerous and self-centered, easily angered and full of spiteful put-downs. Kaplan's descent into madness was like a wild child throwing a tantrum. Under director Jeremy Fiebig's guidance, the tragic side of Lear has been downplayed somewhat, the final scene with Cordelia's body having little emotional impact. But Kaplan deserves credit for throwing himself into all the physical challenges and bringing a consistency to the role's staggering amount of text.
As Lear's daughters, Tohry Petty's snippy, disdainful Goneril and Kaley Morrison's simpering but sly Regan made a good contrast for Jennifer Pommerenke's loving, faithful Cordelia. As Lear's companions in the wilderness, Wade Newhouse gave the Earl of Kent admirable warmth and loyalty, while Samantha Corey invested the Fool with appropriate mockery that hides abiding love. Evan Bridestone's Gloucester gained stature after his rather gruesomely staged eye gouging, the recognition of his banished son Edgar most moving. Aaron Alderman found many levels in Edgar's predicament, paired nicely with David Henderson's cocky, conniving Edmund, Edgar's bastard brother. As directed, Gus Allen gamely portrayed Goneril's steward Oswald as a fey fop, good for many laughs, although not always appropriate for the scenes.
Fiebig has kept the action flowing and the pace bracing. He confines the playing space to a smallish square bound by wispy trees and set with a large wooden table and benches. His design of a towering, barn-like wall of wooden slats with three doorways adds a rustic feel. To provide a more intimate audience experience, three rows of white folding chairs (like those set up for outdoor weddings) are on either side of the playing space, as well as two long rows placed in front. Only the first few rows of regular theatre seats are made available.
This close-up view draws in the audience nicely, starting with the pre-show musical numbers expertly sung and played by the cast and proceeding with many instances when the actors speak directly to the audience. The rewards of such proximity are often mitigated, however, by staging that favors those in the onstage seats, the actors facing upstage from those in the off-stage seats. In addition, many scenes are too static with much of the audience rarely seeing some actors' faces. Aaron Alderman's lighting frequently adds to the problem with actors in shadows.
Laura J. Parker's costuming takes the now-clichéd route of multiple-era styles for Shakespeare, the court in 19th century formal wear, Lear's daughters in 1950s fashions, and the servants in medieval garb. The sound of rain and wind continually overpowered the actors in the storm scenes, causing them to shout relentlessly with no chance for nuance.
Still, the rare chance to experience King Lear locally overrides the production's liabilities. As with all Shakespeare's plays, a little boning up on the plot beforehand will enhance the show's enjoyment.
King Lear continues its Raleigh run through Sunday, September 24 before transferring the production to Seabrook Auditorium in Fayetteville from September 28-30. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.