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THEATER REVIEW King Lear
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-07-10

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Playwright: William Shakespeare

At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: Redtwist.org and 773-728-7529; $35-$40. Runs through: Aug. 4

What comes to mind first when we hear "Shakespeare's King Lear" is grandeur: scenery-chewing by a celebrated thespian of lengthy reputation and years, Wagner-opera scenic effects—the entire Balkan Wars, for example, in Robert Falls' 2006 production at the Goodman—a running time exceeding three hours and don't even guess the admission price.

Well, thank the muses for storefront theater! Where else can you see Shakespeare's late-career play in a cozy neighborhood "black box" studio where every word uttered is clearly audible without the distractions of visual and aural spectacle, where the performers reveal their intentions from close enough to look us in the eye as they share these confidences and where the patriarchal hero is portrayed by an AARP-eligible actor at least a decade short of conventional age-appropriate casting.

This is no mere classroom exercise, however. In an artistic agora dominated by barely post-baccalaureate talent, Redtwist Theatre is the rare company whose play selection offers opportunities for actors both emerging and experienced. How much more inter-generational can you get, after all, than a controlling father whose ego spurs him to set up his children in competition for his affections.

The setting for this family drama, we are told in the playbill, is an "island kingdom," although the hedgerow boundaries on its map immediately identify it as England—in this case, an England sporting a diverse population encompassing the African-American Earl of Gloucester's clan, along with a female-cast Earl of Kent, a genderfluid King of France and a Fool of non-binary infrastructure ( played by the protean Liz Cloud ).

Far from confusing the audience, this multicultural stage picture not only facilitates our comprehension of the social boundaries indicated by the unfamiliar courtly titles, but our recognition of filial dynamics echoed in family disputes to this day. After hearing Gloucester joke at his second son's illegitimate status, or Lear's daughters, witnessing their sire's mistreatment of their daddy's-girl younger sister, conspire to have him declared unfit to exercise parental authority, we easily detect, beneath the iambic pentameter, the roots of the reckoning suffered by elders who come to regret lessons learned all too well by their offspring.

Even when realized within restricted dimensions and budget, a text calling for a furious thunderstorm in open country, several murders/corporal injuries, fugitives adopting disguises and an abundance of star-turn orations is a hefty undertaking. Under the direction of Steve Scott, though, Brian Parry ( Jeff-nominated for his 2018 portrayal of Richard Nixon ) essays the strenuous role of western drama's worst dad, redeeming in vigor the necessary reduction in oratory flourish, assisted by a classically, if unevenly, trained performance ensemble and efficiently mobile scenic design, to bring home the famous "fivefold never" speech in a tidy two and a half hours, excluding intermission. Oh, and did I mention the affordable tickets?


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