OBIE-winning British director Mark Wing-Davey will stage two different versions of King Lear for PlayMakers Repertory Company Jan. 14-Feb. 8 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first version, which includes almost all of the First Folio (1623) text, will run a little over three hours and include nudity. The second version is a nearly two-hour abridgement of the First Folio text, without nudity.

Both versions of this epic tragedy by English dramatist supreme William Shakespeare (1564-1616) a 17th-century masterpiece of pessimism and nihilism that prefigures 20th-century Existentialism will star distinguished guest artist Michael Winters as King Lear and guest artists Karen Walsh as Cordelia, Rebecca Wisocky as Goneril, Carolyn Baeumler as Regan, John Feltch as Edgar, Charles Parnell as Edmond, Jeffrey West as Oswald, and Michael Babbitt as Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall. PlayMakers mainstay Ray Dooley will play the Fool, and PRC company members Jeffrey Blair Cornell and Kenneth P. Strong will portray Goneril’s husband, the Duke of Albany, and King Lear’s devoted friend, the Earl of Kent, respectively.

“We will be performing the abridged version at matinees and selected evening performances,” Mark Wing-Davey told Robert’s Reviews, “and then we will perform the complete version for the other performances. This is in itself an interesting challenge for the entire team.

“The shorter version is more dynamic,” claims Mark Wing-Davey, “and tells the story of the play in a compact way, stripped to its essence. The longer version is more discursive, and allows for a deeper experience of the play. Working on both is good for the actors, since working on one informs the work on the other, and should prove quite interesting for the audience.”

In the show’s press kit, PlayMakers artistic director David Hammond said: “We are very excited that Mark Wing-Davey has chosen to stage a virtually complete version of the full First Folio text of Shakespeare’s King Lear, providing our audiences a rare opportunity to see this version of the play in its entirety, with all of its stunning imagery, variety, and dramatic juxtaposition. The performances of the complete version will run slightly over three hours. For audience members who do not wish to see the complete First Folio text, we will also offer an abridged version of the production, running under two hours.

“We hope that critics will review both versions, as they will be substantially different theatre experiences,” said Hammond. “The production of the complete First Folio version will also contain nudity, something which is certainly justified by the text. The nudity will be omitted in the abridged version.”

First performed in 1605-06, first published in a quarto version in 1608, and included in the First Folio of 1623, King Lear chronicles the disaster that the play’s prideful elderly title character [Michael Winters] precipitates when he decides to relinquish the British throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters Goneril [Rebecca Wisocky], Regan [Carolyn Baeumler], and Cordelia [Karen Walsh] granting the greatest portion to the daughter whose declaration of love for him pleases him most. Deceived by Goneril and Regan’s lofty but insincere declarations, and infuriated by Cordelia’s flat refusal to flatter him to the skies, Lear disinherits Cordelia and divides his kingdom between Regan and Goneril who soon renege on all their promises of support for the aged king and his retinue. Indeed, they cast him out and leave him to go mad and wander the head, with only his devoted Fool [Ray Dooley] and the Earl of Kent [Kenneth P. Strong], whom Lear banished for supporting Cordelia, in disguise to support him during this dark, dark night of the soul.

In a neatly parallel subplot, the foolish Earl of Gloucester (Ronn Carroll) likewise spurns his honest son, Edgar (John Feltch), and believes the lies of his illegitimate son, Edmond (Charles Parnell), and gets his eyes gouged out by the Duke of Cornwall [Michael Babbitt] in return after Edmond allies himself with Regan and Goneril to fight the invading French army that Cordelia and her husband, the King of France (Brandon Smith), have mobilized to overthrow Goneril and Regan.

Mark Wing-Davey, who won the 1992 Village Voice OBIE Award for Outstanding Director for directing Caryl Churchill’s play, Mad Forest, about the Romanian revolution of 1989, told Robert’s Reviews, “I have known King Lear all my life. I directed a production of the play at [New York University] in 1993, which was quite different, in that it included five King Lears.”

Wing-Davey says, “I decided I wanted to direct this play [for PlayMakers Repertory Company] after I had directed Michael Winters in Brecht’s Life of Galileo at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. We enjoyed working together very much, and we began talking about what else we might want to work on together.

“Michael mentioned King Lear; and when I left, he handed me a copy of the Russian director Grigori Kozintzev’s film of the play, called Karol Lir. After watching that film,” Wing-Davey says, “I had a good idea of how I might like to approach the play this time around. In many ways, that film has served as an inspiration for this production.”

Besides director Mark Wing-Davey, who has composed some original music for this production, the creative team for King Lear includes British scenic designer Narelle Sissons, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, Romanian costume designer Marina Draghici, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.

Wing-Davey says, “The set resembles an abandoned power plant. The lighting has not been designed yet, but will use semi-industrial sources to supplement conventional theater lighting. The costumes are reminiscent of the late Soviet Union, at some point between 1940 and 1970.”

He adds, “The play, which I see through a neo-Darwinist prism, confronts struggles between generations, between autocracy and egalitarianism, between humanism and nihilism. The world that the characters inhabit is at times almost intolerably cruel, and the characters are often faced with a deeply existential despair. As Gloucester says, ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for our sport.’ And yet we go on living. The question of the nature of why one goes on living in a world like this is the catalyst and crux of the play.”

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents King Lear Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 14-17, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 18, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 20-24 and 27-31 and Feb. 3-7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 and 8, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Note 1: Dates of the three-hour First Folio performances, with nudity: Jan. 14, 16, 17, 20, 22, 24, 25, 28, and 30 and Feb. 3, 5, 7, and 8. Dates of two-hour abridged version: Jan. 15, 18, 21, 23, 27, 29, and 31 and Feb. 1, 4, and 6. Note 2: There with be sign-language interpretation, audio description, Braille programs, and large-print programs at the January 23 performance.) $20-$32, except $40 opening night (Jan. 17) and $10 Tuesday Community Night. (Note 3: PRC offers discounts for seniors, students, and youth.) 919/962-PLAY (7529) or Playmakers Repertory Company: First Folio E-Text (1623):