Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2003.

King Lear is so very large and powerful a play that even writing about it is a daunting task. Performing it takes rare courage and commitment, and thank God Shakespeare & Company is up to it, because there is no way to do a good production of King Lear without that essential internal fortitude and passion. This is more than a good production – it is a monumental one. It is everything that a production of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies should be – engaging, understandable, deeply moving and all too human.

I refer you to Jeffrey Borak’s excellent preview article in The Berkshire Eagle where director Tina Packer speaks at length about tackling King Lear as a director and with this company. This is Packer’s second time directing the play, but the first time in Shakespeare & Company’s 25 year history that they have staged the work. Her comments are insightful and moving and explain clearly how she approached this fearsome task

The other year Packer took many of these same performers and mounted a gravely over-wrought Macbeth. A similar approach to King Lear would have been excruciating, and I am delighted to say that this time around Packer has left the gimmickry and need to over-interpret at the doorstep. King Lear just needs to be told, to be acted. It touches on such universal themes of life and aging and death, on being a parent and being a child and being a sibling, on power and greed and lust. Everyone of those themes is beautifully explored and presented here by a stellar cast on a minimal set in spare monochromatic costumes. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the story.

Is Jonathan Epstein too young to play Lear? Well, maybe, but Epstein is one of those actors I would pay good money to hear read the Manhattan phone directory from cover to cover, so does it really matter? Epstein is a healthy and handsome 47 year old, and it is his movements which betray his youth. He gets into the mind of the octogenarian Lear perfectly. Even when Lear is behaving badly, which he does in the early scenes of the play, Epstein creates sympathy and humanity in the man. Epstein’s Lear is never fully mad – he is overwhelmed and profoundly changed, but never insane.

Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Ariel Bock are horrifyingly real as Goneril and Regan. In the terrible scene in which Regan and her husband Cornwall tear out Gloucester’s eyeballs, Aspenlieder is a blur of fury hurtling through space while the creepy Mark Saturno does the deed. Packer has directed this most discomforting of scenes with immense energy and the four hardy and determined actors earned a well-deserved round of applause for their efforts.

As the other family of note in King Lear Johnny Lee Davenport plays Gloucester, John Douglas Thompson his bastard son Edmund and Jason Asprey his legitimate son Edgar. Edmund is a wonderful meaty role, and Thompson appears to be having the time of his life playing it. His Edmund is sexy and unabashedly ambitious. He has nothing to start with, so what has he got to lose?

Kevin Coleman is a sweet and bitter fool. His face and cockscomb droop like a basset hound’s, the headdress assuming the aspect of long floppy ears and his eyes taking on the innocent agony that breed of dog so perfectly embodies.

The 2003 configuration of the Founders’ Theatre as a thrust or ¾ round performance space brings this production into vivid 3-D. You are not watching pretty pictures in a brightly lit frame, you are witnessing whole and complex people doing unspeakable things and suffering profound loss a few feet from your face. This intensity for three and a half hours is exhausting but mesmerizing. At the curtain call the actors appear drained, and the audience exits in a subdued mood, aware that they have witnessed something powerful and eternal.

The show is staged on a mostly bare stage. The color palette is mostly white, with some black thrown in for sharp contrast. Neither Kris Stone’s set nor Arthur Oliver’s costumes are allowed to interfere with or detract from the performers and the play. Matthew E. Adelson gets to strut his stuff with spectacular lighting effects in the storm scenes, and Jason Fitzgerald has created a sound design which is loud when it needs to be but often quieter than it should be. With a score, or “soundtrack” if you will, composed and performed by Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center under the direction of Michael Gandolfi, you would think Fitzgerald and Packer might have turned up the volume just a bit on the musical pieces.

Packer states that whenever you encounter King Lear you come at it from where you are in your own life. Less than a year ago I sat with my sister as our elderly father died of cancer. No kingdoms were at stake. No one was poisoned or banished or got their eyes gouged out. And yet now I can relate to Goneril and Regan’s fear and confusion at being asked to give up their lives to care for a father who is rapidly changing. I am happy to say that my sister and I handled the situation with considerably more grace and humanity, but there were definitely moments when we were ready to send, if not him then one or both of us, out into the storm simply to escape the stress and inevitability of death.

Wherever you are in your life’s journey, I urge you to see this production of King Lear. It is not easy to watch, and it is certainly not a “fun” evening of theatre, but it is a necessary experience. This production will serve as a touchstone in the lives of all who are fortunate enough to witness it.

King Lear runs through August 30 at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company on Kemble Street in Lenox. The show runs three and a half hours with one intermission. With literally piles of bodies on the stage by play’s end, this is really a play for adults only, although serious-minded high schoolers could enjoy it. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003

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