BWW Review: APT'S Gritty KING LEAR Grapples with 21st Century Reality

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

When the audience arrives at American Players (APT) Up the Hill Theatre for the opening of William Shakespeare's King Lear, they might believe a presidential press conference will be staged. Green lawn expands into the audience, actors place contemporary white chairs in a distinct pattern and a glass podium greets the audience--and plenty of paparazzi appear to capture the King, the Duke of Gloucester and Duchess of Kent, and Lear's three daughters entering the lawn party. At night under the stars, the royal staging opens when the King appears announcing his "retirement,' dividing his kingdom to his three progeny. Two dutiful daughters ascend to the podium pronouncing their love, while Cordelia speaks from the back row of chairs, the front of the Up The Hill Theatre. Goneril, Regan and Cordelia were "dressed to kill", so to speak, in sophisticated, fashion worthy coats and the appropriate fascinators for English royalty, as were the men.This beginning places the audience firmly in a King Lear crafted for the current day, up to the very minute audiences.

While Shakespeare's Lear unfolded first in the early 1600's, this 21st reality version directed by William Brown spares no sympathy, romanticizes nothing about a father who disinherits one of his daughters, banishing her from her homeland, England, and his sight. The destruction of Lear's family and his kingdom continues throughout the evening, as everything the king hoped for unravels, just as this happened in Shakespeare's story for more than 400 years. To view this in an up close and personal vernacular, stripped perhaps right from the televisions screen, can be disconcerting in the best way. The audience believes Lear is ever relevant from the production's first minutes.

Brown bears down with grit on this King Lear-a production where APT actor Jonathan Smoots descends instead of into madness, more into debilitation and dementia, modern calamities.. A descent created more from the deceit of his daughters than because he declines his crown. Smoots descends with a fiery anger and fury that eventually transcends into forgiveness, for himself, and the daughter he deserted, Cordelia, a petite yet fierce Melisa Pereyra.

The other two daughters, Laura Rook's Goneril and Kelsey Brennan's Regan, along with Pereyra, represent a younger feminine order at APT, and in Lear, and they command their domain.. Rook and Brennan parade their feminine wiles in sexy sizzle and style, while Pereyra flees to France and returns in combat boots and army green gear to save her father with the help of the Duchess of Kent, a fabulous Great Oglesby.

Also assisting Lear to great effect, his personal fool sings and plays to soothe his soul from the honky tonk of Rhythm and Blues in one scene. A refreshing R&B moment with plenty of swing uplifts the tragedy with song, all performed by an amazing Cristina Panfilio. To follow, Smoots decries his family and his life, when put out in a storm by his daughter Regan, locked out of her house along with his fool. The scene plays with actual thunder, and rain, as if a storm suddenly appeared over the theater, and amplifies the human senses with chills..

Another family tragedy strikes the Duke of Gloucester, an evocative, elegant James Ridge, a man who has been tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund, into believing his legitimate son Edgar, betrayed him. A dashing and almost cruel Marcus Truschinski, plays the immoral Edmund to the unaware Edgar, a complex Erik Parks,who is also banished into becoming a madman. Perhaps the scenes between Ridge and Parks, the father and son, after Edgar has been banished for his supposed treason and the Duke blinded for his support of the King, transport the audience to another space in their hearts, The tragedy of this father and son almost unbearable, especially to see Ridge's Duke blinded and left walking in his private darkness, aided by the son he wronged and is completely unaware of.

To follow in the aftermath, Cordelia eventually discovers her father, and rescues him so Smoots appears in a wheelchair wearing hospital garments. The audience again acknowledges contemporary aging, stripped to the bare essentials seen in the tenderness between daughter and father. Yet, when Smoots, as Lear, carries Cordelia's limp body on the stage, the tragedy multiplies ten fold, as does the emotion, perfectly climaxed from the previous scenes and set in real time, today's 21st century. A moment when a father's decisions haunt him, as they might for anyone sitting in the audience who had an altercation with a child, daughter or son.

This summer the audience experiences a King Lear larger than life, both intimate and intimidating., an ancient play resonating over centuries and grappling with 21st century events.. Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet, Costume Designer Rachael Anne Healy, Lighting Designer Michael A. Peterson and Fight Director Tyler Rich produce a Lear with startling accuracy to the newspaper pages. When smoke wafts from under the podium and machine guns confront the actors on stage to open the second act, one believes they could be watching a scene from any country around the globe. To wake up the following morning in Milwaukee, with pictures of fire and smoke, were eerily discomforting as city shootings sparked social unrest, so similar to Shakespeare's Lear, even if for different reasons. Still, in Milwaukee that same evening, families were destroyed and the public peace disturbed.

"Nothing comes from nothing," King Lear tells Cordelia. Perhaps the time has come in families and communities to bring something good from nothing. When children or prints hurt one another, love and forgiveness reclaim them. When betrayal occurs, understanding from trusted allies and friends benefits peace instead of violence. What has humanity learned through the centuries? When sitting in the audience under a serene cover of starlight, this disturbing and terribly current King Lear will set emotions and hearts ablaze with a determined attitude to change the future...Because as Shakespeare and APT show the audience through exquisite language and stunning actors in King Lear, the horrors that anger, betrayal, lust and power create rarely succeed.

American Players Theatre presents William Shakespeare's King Lear at the Up the Hill Theatre through the 2016 season. For information on special events, performance schedules, picnic lunches or tickets, please call; 608.588.2361 or www.americanplayerstheatre.org.

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan