An aging king decides to retire and divide his land between his three daughters, but first requires his daughters to make a declaration of love to him in order to determine which one loves him best. This requirement triggers a series of events that cause the land to descend into chaos, war, betrayal, madness, and death. This is King Lear and it is currently playing at the BlueBarn.
It’s been said that the tragedies of William Shakespeare laid the blueprint for the modern-day soap opera and that’s very believable as all of the Bard’s tragedies tend to follow certain patterns and contain similar themes prevalent in that genre of entertainment. You have protagonists with fatal flaws, warring families, backstabbing (sometimes in a very literal sense), betrayal, intrigue, alliance, and complex schemes, just to name a few. Great elements for an engaging spectacle, but BlueBarn’s King Lear has an x factor that raises it to another level.
It’s a masterpiece.
Believe me, I don’t bandy that word about very readily. But this show is virtually perfect. Direction that is spot on. Acting that held nary a flaw. Beautiful costumes. Atmospheric lighting. A transcendent set. And a story that will have you heart aching at the folly and depravity of man.
I’d known of Jill Anderson’s sterling reputation as an actress, but she proved that she is equally golden as a director. Anderson truly understands the complexities of Shakespeare’s writing and language and easily guides the audience through its labyrinthian path. She knew when to punch up a moment with just the right amount of big emotion and when the subtlest of subtlety was needed. The pacing was sure. The staging was immaculate. Anderson’s grip on the language was so ironclad that she had an entire cast tossing it off as if it were their natural tongue. Her coaching of the actors was championship quality as they worked like a well-oiled machine with hardly a blip in their work.
I could easily wax poetic on the work of the entire cast, but for brevity’s sake, let me simply say that some of the truly excellent performances you’ll see come from Josh Peyton who shines in my favorite role of The Fool, who just may be the wisest person in the show. Matthew Kisher is stellar as Edgar, a good and innocent man who is compelled to accept the heavy mantle of avenger and hero when he finds himself and his father the target of a conspiracy. Ashley Kobza and Melissa King kill it as Goneril and Regan. Kobza is particularly impressive as the brutish, more military minded Goneril while King’s Regan is a bit more Machiavellian, yet is capable of a frightening level of viciousness as when she claws out the eye of an ally of her father, Lear. Delaney Jackson is haunting as the gentle Cordelia who is disinherited by Lear simply because she is sincere about her love for him.
I’ve seen Thomas Becker essay many a fine role over the years, but his King Lear might just be his crowning achievement (pardon the pun). This is a very difficult role to perform as the actor needs to play a man who is both strong and weak. Lear is very much the warrior king, yet is cursed with the fatal flaws of arrogance, stupidity, and ability to be easily manipulated due to his ego. Becker is incredible as a ruler whose age and ego make him quite irascible, but whose behavior may also indicate the onset of dementia and certainly madness as his eldest daughters break his spirit after they get his land which is all they wanted from him.
Becker makes massive emotional changes on the turn of a dime as he can go from being explosively angry to childishly humorous in the blink of an eye. Some of Becker’s best scenes are his moments of clarity when he realizes what he has done to himself and to the daughter that truly loved him and you see a glimpse of the good man who got lost somewhere along the way.
Shane Staiger is evil personified as Edmund. While one can have sympathy at his inability to inherit his father’s lands due to his illegitimate status, his plan to bypass that is reprehensible. This is truly one of the most selfish people I’ve seen portrayed on stage and Staiger is phenomenal. In the presence of others, he assumes a gentlemanly and honorable persona, but removes that mask in his monologues where his derisive sneers and demonic smirks fully make you buy into his evil. This man truly looks out for number one and he will lie to, kill, and seduce whomever he has to in order to obtain the power he desperately craves.
Ryan Kathman is a truly noble man as Kent. This is a man who truly loves his king and because of that love can’t be anything less than honest with him. Kathman’s Kent boldly and bluntly tells the king when he does wrong even when that directness results in his exile. Yet so great is his love that he continues to serve his king in disguise in order to protect him from himself. Not only does Kathman project that needed sense of decency and loyalty, he also shows some dandy comedic chops with his hilarious abuse of the servant, Oswald.
Steven Williams’ set transports you back to a long-ago time with its wooden outline shaping into elegant castle doors and staircases as frilled sheets decorate the ceiling and descend into tapestries. His lighting is so atmospheric especially during the monologue scenes when the lights go low except for a lone light on the speaker with the color matching the speaker’s personality such as the sadistic red of Edmund’s speeches. His lighting for the storm sequence combined with Bill Kirby’s booming thunder made for one of the best technical scenes I’ve ever seen on stage. And speaking of sounds, Kirby’s are top notch from the relentless drumbeats that drive the story to its finale to the definitive thump of a drawbridge closing, effectively imprisoning Gloucester in his own home. Jill Anderson did double duty as she was also costume designer and they are dynamite with their medieval look from the knights to the Fool’s jester outfit to the elegant dresses of the ladies and the robes of the men.
This is an extremely worthy night of entertainment and don’t be concerned that you might not understand the classical language. The program contains a synopsis of the story so you’ll understand what’s going on and then can merely immerse yourself in the language, acting, and tragic story of a land’s downfall due to a foolish king.
King Lear runs at BlueBarn through April 16. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm with a performance on April 3 at 2pm and April 10 at 6pm. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased by calling 402-345-1576 or visiting www.bluebarn.org. BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.