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“King Lear” a Drama
for Our Divided Time

Ted Morrissey

When I think of King Lear, one of the words that comes to mind is sprawling. The play sprawls geographically across various seats of power, multiple fields of battle, and a malevolent storm-wracked countryside. The play sprawls politically with layers of allies and enemies making bonds and breaking them as the moment dictates. And Lear sprawls emotionally as familial dynamics draw forth the gentlest affection and the vilest revenge.

To put it plainly, King Lear has a lot of moving parts, even by Shakespearean standards. A skillful company can treat its audience to an experience that is as fast-paced, as heart-wrenching, as funny, and as enthralling as anything that contemporary streaming services can offer in a given binging session. True to form, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival is once again home to just such a skillful company.

Directed by Robert Quinlan, King Lear opened July 9 on an ideal evening beneath the sort of moon and stars that are so often invoked in the play. The open-air Ewing Theater was nicely attended by an engaged audience that responded viscerally during the performance and came to its feet when Henson Keys (Lear) took his curtain call. As the aged king who sets the tragedy in motion by demanding public expressions of love from his three daughters before bestowing upon them their portions of his kingdom, Keys is responsible for driving the action of the play from start to finish. With more than twice as many lines as any other character in the play, Lear moves from powerful king to homeless wretch, from raging proclamations to nonsensical flourishes à la the Dane.

That said, King Lear is far from a one-actor play, and Keys’ excellent performance is made possible by his talented cast-mates. Other noteworthy performances are provided by the duplicitous daughters Goneril and Regan (Rachael Fox and Jessica Dean Turner) as well as the loyal Cordelia (Madeline Calais). Dan Matisa delivers a masterful Kent, a nobleman who remains true to Lear in spite of Lear’s increasing instability. Similarly, Quetta Carpenter’s Fool is frequently the source of the humor that counterbalances and therefore accentuates the emotionally charged elements of the plot. The Fool speaks truth to power in Lear and is key to capturing the audience’s allegiance. The linchpin role is handled with aplomb by the multitalented Carpenter.

While Lear versus his daughters is the main focus of the play, there is a vital parallel plot involving Gloucester (Rafael Untalan) and his legitimate and illegitimate sons Edgar and Edmund (Brandon Burditt and Riley Capp) in which the scheming Edmund turns his father against the unsuspecting Edgar. All three carry out their roles with the kind of craftsmanship audiences have come to expect from the Festival. Burditt’s Edgar is especially challenging as he must transform into Poor Tom, a wandering wretch who is every bit as mad as Lear, in order to evade his half-brother’s henchmen.

As the complicated plot speeds toward its climax, Albany, Goneril’s mistreated husband, becomes increasingly important, and Christian Castro’s polished performance facilitates the play’s stunning conclusion. (Castro also serves as the production’s Fight Captain.) While I have highlighted a few of the actors by name, there isn’t a weak performance to be found. (Access the full 2022 program here.)

The world depicted in King Lear may at first seem remote to today’s audiences, but the issues it raises are as up-to-date as this morning’s Twitter feed. Never a propagandist, Shakespeare and his King’s Men debuted King Lear at court in December 1606, showing the recently crowned King James a place as divided as his own kingdom, with many of the monarch’s specific problems reflected in its plots and characters. James was navigating the treacherous currents of bringing Scotland and England together, reconciling Protestants and Catholics, and enlisting the support of noble families who had been alienated by Elizabeth during the Tudor reign without losing the support of pro-Stuart factions. Drawing a story from ancient Britain, Shakespeare considers the potentially calamitous results of botched political maneuvering.

The United States in 2022 is no less divided than Lear’s or James’ Englands: progressive Democrats versus Maga Republicans; pro-Roe groups versus the Supreme Court’s majority; gun-control advocates versus the NRA; democratic socialists versus free-market capitalists; Covid vaccine proponents versus anti-vaxxers; those who testify before January 6 investigators versus those who refuse to cooperate. The similarities make line after line take on new meaning. For example, Gloucester’s painfully profound “’Tis the time’s plague, when madmen lead the blind.”

Besides its talented actors, the Festival production benefits from an equally talented crew. To my list of sprawling elements above, I should add costuming (directed by Kathryn Rohe), as they range from elaborate and luxurious, perhaps inspired by those worn in King James’ court, to the beaten and bloody rags donned by key characters after their fall from power. The changes in costume ironically suggest the characters’ evolution from heartless inhumanity to costly bought humanity (or their lack of evolution, depending).

Also mentioned above is the storm-wracked heath that dramatizes Lear’s tormented psyche. The Festival’s simple set is made into a violent wilderness via exceptional lighting and sound design (directed by Marly Wooster and M. Anthony Reimer, respectively).

England survived the time of Lear and the time of James. Perhaps Shakespeare shows us that no matter how dark and stormy the current climate, the key to survival is facing conflicts head-on. As Edgar observes, “The weight of this sad time we must obey, / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

King Lear and (the much lighter) Much Ado about Nothing (directed by Lisa Gaye Dixon) will be performed throughout July and the first week of August. All those interested in live theater should treat themselves to the annual treasure that is the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

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Ted Morrissey‘s novel excerpts, short stories, poems, critical articles, reviews, and translations have appeared in more than 100 publications, among them Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, and Southern Humanities Review. His most recent novel, The Artist Spoke, won the Maincrest Media Award in Literary Fiction.

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