Review: KING LEAR at Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival

André de Shields brings his WIZardry to the role of Lear in Forest Park!!

By: Jun. 07, 2021
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Review: KING LEAR at Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival

The weather gods blessed us Friday night as King Lear took the stage. It was a perfect sweet evening for lawn-chairs on the grass, a little wine, a snack or two and-The Bard! Now King Lear features the most horrendous storm in all theater history. Well, the cunning and art of David Molina transformed what was a meteorologically celestial evening into a remarkably fierce storm, with eerie and disturbing orchestral and throbbing vocalise undertones. Mr. Molina is the Music and Sound Designer for this show, and his work, together with a background of persistent African drumming, added much to the tensions and conflicts in Shakespeare's story.The St. Louis Shakespeare Festival has its home in one of the most beautiful urban sites in the country. Our Forest Park is far larger than Central Park in New York. Near its center is the lofty Art Hill, with its museum and its gorgeous equestrian statue of the sainted King Louis IX overlooking the Grand Basin and its fountains. The Shakespeare Glen is a few steps below the Museum, and it's a most charming and comfortable site for the Festival performances.

Covid precautions have made the Festival limit attendance. Admission is still free, but reservations must be made. This actually made the experience even nicer; we sat not in a packed crowd, but with a bit of elbow-room.

Before the show we were greeted by two significant ladies-new mayor Tishaura Jones and new congresswoman Cori Bush. These are two high-spirited women, who appeared less as politicians than as hostesses who expressed their sheer joy in welcoming us and in showering us with love.

But (at least to musical theater fans) there was an even grander presence here-in the title role. Yes, André de Shields is playing Lear! His long career in musical theater stretches from the original Hair to The Wiz to Hadestown, and it is bespangled with awards (Emmy, Grammy and others). He's an icon. Now, at seventy-five, he takes on the most demanding role in all of Shakespeare. De Shields is a small, wiry man, and his long work as a singer and dancer have left him wonderfully fit for this challenge. He gives us a Lear of great energy, though perhaps without great subtlety. At times, in his approach to madness, he seems to merely shout, but there are wonderful deeply felt moments too. His utterly agonized grief at the death of Cordelia is profoundly moving.

This production was directed by Carl Cofield from the Classical Theatre of Harlem. He has transposed Shakespeare's story from ancient Britain to a modern North-Africa (though many costume accessories and much of the wonderful ever-present drumming are distinctly sub-Saharan). Cofield's stated intent was to make the story more relevant today. I'm not so sure. (Sixteen years ago our St. Louis Black Rep did a North African production of Macbeth that was rather more persuasive.)

The cast is very strong throughout. We have a strikingly fine performance by Leland Fowler as the evil Edmund. Fowler fills the role with energy and clarity and wit; things happen when he's on stage!

Daniel José Molina plays Edmund's virtuous half-brother Edgar. His performance shines with animal energy and agility-especially when he's disguised as Poor Mad Tom.

Rayme Cornell as Goneril and Jacqueline Thompson as Regan fill these wicked daughters with power and venom in their greedy struggle.

Review: KING LEAR at Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival
J. Samuel Davis

The saintly Cordelia is beautifully played by Nicole King. She has an exceptionally fine voice and perfect diction. In Act 1, after Lear disowns her, he places her on a pedestal where she stands modest and silent as her father auctions her, like a very slave, to whichever of her kingly suitors will take her without a dowry.

J. Samuel Davis brings his usual remarkable strength and dignity to the loyal Kent-his voice as clear as a bell.

Allen Gilmore makes a wise and clever Fool. The Earl of Gloucester, strongly played by Brian Anthony Wilson, suffers mightily for his fidelity to Lear. Cornwall gouges out his eye with (would you believe?) a cordless power drill! (Oooh, that smarts!)

Solid work is done by Carl Overly, Jr., as Cornwall, by Jason J. Little as Albany, and by Michael Tran as Oswald, obedient servant to Goneril.

Praise must be given also to the tireless drummer, Atum Jones, who adds so much excitement to many scenes. After such extended machine-gun work his fingers must be mere nubs.

Scene designer Wilson Chin gives towering white-tiled archways which behave dramatically under John Wylie's vividly colored lighting. Lear's gold throne is backed by an enormous golden eagle. (It brought to mind the obscenely extravagant coronation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa who, in 1977, styled himself the autocratic Emperor of the short-lived Central African Empire.)

Costumer Mika Eubanks fills the stage with intense color. One convenient touch was the color-coding of the two evil couples: Orange Regan goes with Orange Cornwall; purple Goneril goes with purple Albany. The virtuous Cordelia is, of course, clad in white. Lear, at the nadir of his madness, appears decorated with primitive tribal paint on his body, face and hair.

The combination of fine diction and just-so amplification ensure that you will not miss a word in this long story.

Director Cofield keeps the action quite brisk, scenes flowing quickly into scenes. Its playing time (with intermission) is something under three hours which, for King Lear, is quite an accomplishment. There are many characters and many scenes in many places--castles, heaths, cliffs, etc., so a glance at a study guide before may help you follow it all.

Shakespeare's King Lear continues at Saint Louis Shakespeare Festival in Forest Park through June 27.

Photos by Phillip Hamer Photography


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