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Review: Edward Fernandez as KING LEAR at EPAC

The tendency to want young performers in large roles overlooks one very large truth: a performer's talent, if he has it in the first place, only increases as age and experience grow. It's one of the pains of seeing a too-young actor in an older part; it's not the difficulty of costuming and makeup to ape age and wisdom, but the lack of felt wisdom and experience in the role that hurts. Shakespeare's greatest roles are not written for the young. They are generals, leaders of men, kings - and none more so than Lear.

Llyr, the Welsh sea god, is the likely origin of the name of the mythic Celtic British ruler, as his daughters' names are equally Celtic, despite the English aristocratic titles held by the nobles in the show. Lear is a character as huge as the sea, and perhaps as old; Shakespeare has him and the rest of the cast of KING LEAR writ large, and it needs must be played large.

Edward Fernandez, artistic director of Ephrata Performing Arts Center and performer in his own right, has finally reached an age and stature to play a character of the age and psychological enormity of Lear, and if any actor is right for the part, he is. He's capable of handling the range of emotions and psychic states of the old and declining king theatrically, not hammily, and with great grace, commanding the stage without overwhelming it. He's been on the EPAC stage before, but perhaps never so perfectly. Lear is a part that must be grown into, and Fernandez has arrived.

But the story of Lear would be nothing if not for his daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia - here Kristie Ohlinger, Megan Riggs, and Bailey Wilson. While the first two performers are EPAC veterans, Wilson, as the youngest daughter, Cordelia, is in fact a high school junior. It's a fact the audience can't spot; while Cordelia's role is smaller than the older sisters' roles, she's mature enough to decide to marry the King of France, and to lead a rescue of her father, and Wilson certainly has the maturity to be as convincing as Ohlinger and Riggs. The latter two, by the way, are extremely convincing in their portrayals of the two worst daughters in literature; it's hard to resist the urge to get out of your seat to slap the two of them for the way they treat their father.

It's always a pleasure to see John Kleimo on the EPAC stage, including here, as the fond, foolish, and easily swayed Earl of Gloucester, who becomes blind in order to see. BrIan Martin, as the Earl of Kent, is equally compelling as a man who will serve his king even when the king has turned against him. Gene Ellis is a joy as Lear's Fool, a man far more sane than his master.

Gloucester's two sons, parallels to Lear's daughters, are Sean Deffley as Edgar, the legitimate son and heir, not prized as greatly as Edmund, played by Preston Schreffler, Gloucester's illegitimate but acknowledged son. Edgar, unlike Cordelia, has never done any thing which Gloucester could find unkind, but Edmund lives to manipulate his father and everyone else around him, leading both Edgar and Gloucester into a trap to further his own ends. Deffley is quite fine both as Edgar and in portraying Mad Tom, Edgar's disguise to keep an eye on his father (in which he parallels the Earl of Kent to Lear). Schreffler has every reason to relish playing the duplicitous Edmund, as well he should; Edmund is one of the greatest, most moustache-twirling, villains in literature, truly a man one loves to hate.

John Rohrkemper and Bob Checchia are the Dukes of Albany and Cornwall, husbands to Goneril and Regan. Rohrkemper's Albany develops backbone as the story unfolds, finally able to stand up to his wife and to support the order of the land, while Checchia's Cornwall becomes his wife's tool, failing to stand up to Edmund while Albany traps him.

It's strong stuff, neatly performed under the direction of Alan Gomberg. If anything is off, the sword fighting seems a bit too restrained, a bit unconvincing, though it still fits within the artificial heightened reality that accompanies Shakespearian production. The costuming by Kate Willman is, on the other hand, spectacular, done for the most part in a combination of traditional and contemporary, traditionally-referenced styling. The women's dresses are a modern take on what medieval might look like, while Lear's falls between steampunk Victorian and a very modern white suit that references hospital garb. The costuming and the stark set give a very contemporary idea of what's considered timeless.

Although the play is set in a supposedly medieval or earlier time, there are plenty of references to Elizabethan politics - the question of who houses Lear, with how many of his knights, is a sure reference to Elizabeth's known habit of bankrupting opposing nobles by coming to visit them with her entire retinue and staying on for a long duration, demanding full royal treatment. But many of its issues, like the story itself and the setting here, are timeless: how do we treat our families? How do we use other people to our own benefit, with or without harming them? How do we know if a new idea is progressive or disastrous? It's all a difficult situation, and Shakespeare doesn't answer it with a happy ending. But if it doesn't provoke thinking on those matters, nothing will. If you don't follow the modern parallels as well as the historic ones, you're not awake.

Yes, it's a long show, with some necessary break time. At over three hours, it is indeed longer than LES MISERABLES, and has even more food for thought. Prepare for that, but also prepare to be moved and provoked in a way that little else, even in Shakespeare, can. And prepare for Edward Fernandez to be the main agent of that emotional and philosophical movement.

On stage at EPAC through March 25. Visit

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