Savage Rose Transfers Successful ‘Lear’ to Kentucky Shakespeare Stage

Kentucky Shakespeare Festival hosted its final opening night of the Central Park summer season last night with Savage Rose Classical Theatre’s impressive “King Lear,” anchored by a powerful performance in the starring role by out-going Savage Rose founder and artistic director J. Barrett Cooper. If you caught Savage Rose’s original production this past March at Walden Theatre, there won’t be many surprises, but the transfer to the larger C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre results in some tonal shifts and differences, making this week’s festival production its own unique event. 

There are two more opportunities to see Savage Rose’s “King Lear” at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Friday and Sunday (8 p.m., free). Tonight and Saturday, see Shoestring Productions’ female-focused scene and monologue anthology “Women of Will” (8 p.m., free). 

Read the Earlier Review: Savage Rose’s Miraculous “King Lear” Is Both Tragic and Fun

It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that every return to one of his stories will yield different lessons. This time around, I was struck by how dangerous honesty was in his medieval English court, how three loyal and true characters are turned out of their homes, one by one, simply for refusing to play the political games necessary for survival. The narcissistic king disinherits his plain-spoken daughter Cordelia (Kelsey Thompson) in favor of her treacherous, flattering sisters Goneril (Virginia Schneider) and Regan (Jennifer Pennington), and splits his kingdom among those two, who in turn go on a devastating rampage through court. The Earl of Kent (Tom Luce) and the Earl of Gloucester’s legitimate son Edgar (Neill Robertson) pay a similar price for their true-blue natures, yet they remain guardian angels of sorts, loyal to the king and crown to the end, even as Lear slips into dementia and loses all dignity along with his power. 

I reviewed Savage Rose’s earlier production, which features mostly the same cast (in the re-mount, Chris Anger took over the role of the Fool from Kyle Ware, whose roles in four other Kentucky Shakespeare Festival productions surely kept him busy enough this summer). The chief difference between this production and the earlier version is the tone. The intimate space of Walden’s Nancy Niles Sexton Theatre collapsed the space between actor and audience, allowing much of Shakespeare’s subtle humor in “Lear” to shine, while on the more expansive amphitheater stage, the timeless human tragedy takes center stage. 

As Lear, Cooper’s transformation from imperious leader to dementia-riddled elder is as impressive and tragic as ever, a fitting swan song for the departing performer in his last (for now) Louisville role. As his evil daughters, Pennington and Schneider still shine, but Schneider’s performance is even more nuanced this time around, her choked rage poisoning her calculated ambition as she and bloodthirsty Regan face off in an internal war over the scraps of affection dangled by treacherous Gloucester bastard Edmund (Jon Patrick O’Brien, a delightful and sinister rogue). In Robertson’s disguise as the madman “Poor Tom,” which mirrors Lear’s own deterioration, he lets his wild eyes and kinetic body language telegraph the desperation behind his character’s exile, spinning heartfelt tragedy, and ultimately reclaimed dignity, from a comic relief role. As the fool, Anger’s edge brings out the cynicism of his role, that the king employs a man to tell him the truths he won’t allow from his loved ones.

The company wisely adds several nonspeaking soldier roles to fill out the larger stage, expanding the ensemble to fit the space without overwhelming the action. On the larger outdoor stage, Manuel J. Grimaldi’s original score feels like too much window-dressing, especially when it clashes with the chorus of crickets and cicadas in the Central Park trees. Better to put the sound energies behind nailing the wireless microphone cues, since many lines were dropped or cut off on opening night, and backstage business amplified into the sound system more than once. 

Fans of Cooper’s won’t want to miss this last performance heading the company he started in 2008 as an answer to a call for more classical theater in Louisville. Under his leadership, Savage Rose has produced consistently high-quality productions of classical fare both popular (“The Importance of Being Earnest”) and obscure (the delightful Theatre du Grand-Guignol pieces in last year’s Slant Culture fest, for example), securing a well-earned place among Louisville’s top-tier independent arts companies. The record-breaking crowds at this summer’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival bear out what Cooper and his company have preached for years – a good story told well is timeless. Let’s look forward to more in the years to come.

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