‘King Lear’ at Redtwist Theatre Lacks Thematic Imagination

Why do we keep coming back to Shakespeare?

In the past, I’ve posited that, since we love these stories so much, we want to see what our modern artists think of it, how one’s favorite director or actor or designer interprets this line, or that plot twist. I still believe this, but it does presuppose that Shakespeare’s plays are inherently a good force in the world, and deserving of our love and attention. I have heard several critics of color bemoan the fact that so much of our pop culture and theatre draws so heavily from a white guy who died four hundred years ago – and that we should mindfully attempt to wean ourselves off our culture’s single-minded obsession with trusty old Will.

I tend to come at this argument somewhere in the middle: for better or for worse, Shakespeare is wedged firmly in our collective unconsciousness as a species. So while he’s wedged in there, we might as well come up with new interpretations of his works that upend the outdated and often harmful old ways of thinking that his plays often perpetuate. I think that Twelfth Night has some fascinating things to say about the flexibility of gender that Shakespeare didn’t have the vocabulary to fully explore. The same goes for Hamlet and mental illness, Romeo and Juliet and cycles of family violence. And King Lear in particular has some potent, evergreen themes, not only concerning political power, but the difficult process of dealing with a family member who is sliding into dementia. Therefore, a skilled artist is still able to say something relevant with these centuries-old stories, depending on their perspective and the elements they use to execute their vision. 

King Lear at Redtwist, then, transplants the tragedy into a modern setting with its costuming, but that is where the thematic imagining ends.

The costumes from designer Elle Erickson are straightforward; Lear (Brian Parry) wears a suit and a crown. His daughters (Jacqueline Grant, KC Karen Hill, Kayla Raelle Holder) wear business-formal dresses and heels; and Lear’s various Earls and Dukes and aides. . . well, they wear suits. When Kent (Cameron Feagin) is banished and becomes homeless, she transitions from formal wear to baggy pants and a dirty brown jacket. It is all perfectly competent, but there is no sense of world-building, of what kind of kingdom we’re looking at.

The set (Nicholas James Schwartz) is interesting; there is a map of Lear’s island kingdom painted in the center of the floor, which the characters use a few times to point out regions relevant to the plot. A hazy brown-ish green color coats the walls, crossed by a raggedy set of thick, raised, khaki-colored lines that could be a map of the highways or rivers in Lear’s kingdom. But the perplexing part is that most of the walls are covered by large rectangles of white cloth, making the set feel like an unfinished construction site. At key turning points in the play, characters tear down the white cloths, revealing. . . the walls of the set? Which we could kind of see anyway? Because the setting is so vague, and characters rarely interact with it, it feels divorced from the action.

The cast, by and large, has excellent command of the language. They, as well as text coach Paulette Hicks, have clearly put the work in: the dialogue never feels obtuse or impenetrable, as Shakespeare sometimes can. There is love and care here, and the way each actor lights up as they speak, takes pleasure as they bite into and chew on the language, is remarkable and compelling.

But often, the actors perform the emotion of the line, rather than the intention of the scene. The language is fun to get lost in, and I can’t blame any actor who does so – but when your focus is mostly on delivering lines as written, it sucks the forward momentum out of the scene, and the play as a whole.

King Lear contains some of Shakespeare’s heaviest emotional punches, and most gut-wrenching tragic-plot clockwork – each misfortune clicking right into place at just the wrong time, propelling each moment forward like a bullet, hurtling towards the awful, awful climax. Though it has its shining moments, this production does not move at the pace required of a play with a nearly three hour runtime. These complicated plot machinations are lost, and the emotional lives of the characters feel distant.

The fights (from Ian Maryfield) are fun, dangerous, and exciting, making us feel the pain of each fictional injury without worrying for the actors. Liz Cloud is entertaining and heartwarming as the Fool, and Mark West gets some hilarious and darkly charming moments as the villain Edmund. But overall, this King Lear feels a bit obligatory, and doesn’t quite have the clarity of purpose to say something new.

Scott Buechler (Cornwall)
Liz Cloud (Fool)
Megan DeLay (u/s Regan, Cordelia)
Cameron Feagin (Kent)
Alexander Ferguson (Ensemble, u/s France, Oswald)
Jacqueline Grandt (Goneril)
Cindy Henkin (u/s Goneril, Kent)
James Hesla (Albany)
KC Karen Hill (Regan)
Kayla Raelle Holder (Cordelia)
Robert Hunter Bry (Edgar)
Darren Jones (Gloucester)
Lewis R. Jones (Ensemble, u/s Fool, Gloucester, Albany),
Sean William Kelly (Burgundy)
Chris Khoshaba (Ensemble, u/s Edgar, Edmund, Burgundy)
David Lovejoy (France)
Devon Nimerfroh (Oswald)
Brian Parry (Lear)
Mark West (Edmund)

Steve Scott (Director)
Lauren Katz (Assistant Director/Dramaturg)
Seph Mozes (Assistant Director/Dramaturg)
Zachary Crewse (Stage Manager)
Alyssa Mohn (Assistant Production Manager)
Nicholas Schwartz (Set Designer/Production Manager)
Cat Davis (Lighting Designer)
Blake Cordell (Sound Designer)
Elle Erickson (Costume Designer)
Christian Kurka (Props Designer)
Steven Abbott (Scenic Charge)
Ari Craven (Graphic Designer)
Jan Ellen Graves (Marketing)
Paulette Hicks (Text Coach)
Ian Maryfield (Fight/Intimacy Director)
Julia Skeggs (Casting Director)
Evan Sposato (Technical Director)
Molly Weaver (ASM/Wardrobe Supervisor)
Hannah Smith (ASM/Wardrobe Supervisor-sub),
Emma St. John (Assistant Set Designer)
Anna Martin (Costume Stitcher)
Kat Hasonov (Assistant Scenic Charge)
E. Malcolm Martinez (Box Office Manager)
Johnny Garcia (Box Office Associate)
Michael Colucci (Producer)
Jan Allen Graves (Photographer)

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