Let the trumpet sound! The classical players of Louisville’s Savage Rose ensemble have done the near-impossible with “King Lear.” Their three-hour tragedy of a medieval king undone, first by hubris and then by dementia, is more than an excellent and faithful Shakespeare production. It’s also fun.
Directed by Alec Volz and J. Barrett Cooper, who also plays the title role, “King Lear” runs through March 30 at Walden Theater on Payne Street.
A moment of real talk, as the kids say — even among its many tragic brethren, “Lear” can be a total downer. The vain and shallow king (Cooper) disinherits his loyal daughter (Cordelia, played by Kelsey Thompson) and pre-emptively divides England’s rule between obsequious Regan (Jennifer Pennington) and odious Goneril (Virginia Schneider), two real snakes-in-the-grass who push papa out to pasture before the ink is dry on the new map.
Lear assumes he’ll still be respected as King during the years of power transition, but Goneril, Regan and her sadistic husband the Duke of Cornwall (Gerry Rose) have other plans. All the awful people get what they want until the end, but the good don’t fare so well, either. By the end, everyone who doesn’t die has been maimed or put thoroughly through the spiritual wringer. A guy’s eyeballs are ripped out by bare hands. It’s that kind of royal court.
“King Lear” is a brilliant portrayal of the perils of pride and the redemptive power of loyalty and love. But in the hands of the Savage Rose ensemble, it’s also darkly funny – the Bard has a wicked sense of humor, of course, but stone-faced productions of his tragedies don’t always have the guts to go there – and so the tragedy is transformed from nutritious obligation to enjoyable entertainment, as Shakespeare intended his plays to be.
And they do it without the clever trappings of an updated setting or techno-rich layers. With a nearly-bare set, minimal props and spare yet effective sound and light design, there’s little to distract from the individual performances that make this production as entertaining as it is enriching. The cast of seventeen are a well-oiled machine, and from the top down demonstrate a rich human understanding of the text that can muddle the performances of less-experienced actors. This cast understands that the good guys can’t be pathetic, and the bad guys can titillate even as they repel.
Cooper delivers a powerful and poignant performance as the king whose pride is utterly squashed out of him by the ravages of dementia, whose final lucid moment is given to mourning the one daughter who remained true to him even after he betrayed her. Pennington and Schneider are such a delightful evil duo in this production (one a firebrand, the other an ice queen), and we have to like our villains a little, even if we abhor their actions. We’re so taken in by their vamping, Rose’s steely glare is skillfully downplayed until a dramatic torture scene brings him chillingly into the spotlight.
Like any good Shakespearean court drama, there are subplots rich with betrayal and hidden-in-plain-sight fugitives that offer great fodder for the supporting cast as well. Tom Luce mines the beleaguered Earl of Kent’s situation for as much humor as grace. As rival sons of the Earl of Gloucester (Tad Chitwood), Neill Robertson (the legitimate Edgar) and Jon Patrick O’Brien (the bastard Edmund) deliver stand-out performances. When Edgar goes into hiding after Edmund’s betrayal, Robertson’s shape-shifting physical talents and off-kilter sense of humor really shine, while O’Brien’s charisma and command of the stage bode well for his starring role as Hamlet in this summer’s Kentucky Shakespeare in the Parks season.
A final Shakespearean litmus test, one that is failed more often than is reasonably fair. Is the fool funny? Shakespeare’s clowns are melancholy truth-tellers who get away with being the voice of cynical reason because, hey, it’s a living, but too often they come off as mean (or worse, tired) on stage. As Lear’s loyal fool, Kyle Ware is hilarious, but his comedy is a dangerously humane kind, with a manic edge that gives the audience a peek through the curtain to how life with Lear truly felt to those closest to him, an insight that ultimately humanizes Lear’s villainous daughters, too.