King Lear is perhaps Shakespeare’s strangest play. Unlike many other tragedies by Shakespeare or others, we don’t walk away with any sense of grandeur or heroic greatness. As exhibited in Dram Tree Shakespeare‘s current production, we pity Lear, but Shakespeare doesn’t leave us much room to admire him.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is set in ancient Britain. The aging King (the titular Lear) is stepping down from power. He turns to his daughters, planning to divide up his kingdom among them, and asks them to prove their love. Goneril and Regan offer sweet nothings to their father to win his favor. Cordelia honestly replies that she has no words to show her love. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia, leaving the kingdom to Goneril and Regan. The rest of the dark story is the aftermath of this tragic miscalculation.

The mammoth play feels brisk under Jamie Rocha Allen’s smart direction, and the atmosphere is immersive. The fight choreography, like the play, is quick, cruel, and brutal (although the choreographer goes uncredited). The set (designed by UNCW professor Max Lydy) is stark and primal, and feels like an altar ready for sacrifice. The primal nature of the play is furthered, oddly, by the venue of the McEachern’s Warehouse, which feels carved into the earth.

It’s a rare pleasure to see Jerome Davis perform the lead role of Lear. Davis is artistic director and founder of the professional theatre company Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh – one of North Carolina’s most well-regarded theatre companies. Acquiring Davis’s talent is a real boon for Dram Tree Shakespeare, and a good sign for the Wilmington theatre community. Davis gave a human and subtle performance as Lear, and he makes Lear’s swift and brutal mood swings feel lived in and believable. It’s a testament to Wilmington acting talent that the rest of the cast shone just as brightly next to Davis’ excellent performance. In particular, Jordan Wolf’s performance as Edmund felt visceral as he whined and connived his way to power.

Yana Birÿkova‘s abstract projection design presents a dynamic addition to the set, but doesn’t add much to the action. Shae Madison’s sound design adds some simple string instrumentation during transitions, which is hit or miss, with the most effective sound being the use of silence. Stephanie Aman’s brilliant Game of Thrones-inspired costume design does the most world building of any element, and presents a cold medieval world with a modern flare.

King Lear is a bloody and weird play. The play’s amoral tone should be familiar to a modern audience surrounded by dread in the media and elsewhere. In Lear we see interesting connections to modern times: there are bits of Waiting for Godot, elements of Game of Thrones, and even some Trumpisms for good measure. It’s a play that leaves you wanting more, but not exactly more from human nature.

King Lear continues through Sunday, March 25. Fore more details on this production, please view the sidebar.