A mad leader wanders among street people in Bard on Bower’s 21st-century version of King Lear.
Shakespeare’s great tragedy is about warring disparities — the younger generation versus the old, the unscrupulous against the principled, the powerless confronting the powerful.
These imbalances are highlighted for a new generation in Prime Stock Theatre’s interesting, but over-long production of King Lear that opened on Thursday on the outdoor stage at Bower Ponds.
Director Thomas Usher has set the play in a modern-day arena. It starts in the posh corporate boardrooms of the One Percent, then drifts with Lear’s descent into madness and despair, into a sort of urban wilderness — the mean streets and their homeless population.
This relevant concept works well — especially when the play climaxes into a sign-swinging, brick-throwing confrontation between G7-like protestors, political/corporate heavyweights, and police.
The talented cast creates a pot-boiler atmosphere on the outdoor stage. Within the play’s nearly three-hour running time are many engrossing moments.
Lear is played by Tom Bradshaw as an egotistical blowhard who lets his pride get in the way of his reason. With failing health, Lear has decided to step down from leadership. The retiring big shot decided to pass his estate to his three daughters — only he wants to offer the largest share to the one who loves him most.
Goneril (Rina Pelltier) and Regan (Sarah Spicer) fawn over their father and gush their devotion — and this empty flattery pleases the foolish Lear.
When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, says there’s nothing for her to compare her love to, Lear is embarrasses and infuriated.
He disinherits Cordelia (Nicole Leal) and divides her share of the estate between Goneril and Regan.
This sets up the rest of the play to run like a season of House of Cards — only with more power-grabbing craziness and murder. Certain characters get their eyes burned out, tear at their clothing and hair, or wander in a near-naked daze.
Much politicking, back-stabbing and manipulating go on, involving Lear’s friends and greedy foes — including Gloucester (Bill Jacobsen), Gloucester’s son Edgar (Evan MacLeod) and illegitimate son Edmund, played as daughter Emma by Brooke Dalton.
Dalton is conniving as Edmund/Emma. But changing the part to a de-sexualized female means no overt flirting happens between the power-hungry sisters and the free-agent villain, removing a layer of innuendo from the plot.
In Usher’s version of King Lear, the Fool becomes a private nurse who steers Lear’s wheelchair and jokes to try to lighten his burden. Danielle LaRose plays the role as more supportive than mocking, but it works.
Pelltier and Spicer portrayed a smug, aloof Goneril and Regan during the early run-through I watched. By now, their characterizations are, hopefully, even more callous and dismissive of Lear — which would increase tension and give him a greater reason to rave.
Bradshaw’s Lear did a lot of raging at the heavens. He may have since found more quieter moments of despair, which would prove more gut-wrenching to observe. Adult children who have witnessed their parents losing their sharp faculties, their drivers licences, or the freedom to live independently, know this takes a huge toll on ego.
It’s never easy seeing a former powerful, effective person gradually become powerless and incompetent. But that’s the pathos of King Lear.
The play is known for its wonderfully poetic speeches. But like all good art, it also offers us some hard truths about life.
Admission is free but donations are appreciated. Bring a lawn chair, blanket, sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
King Lear will alternate performances with Bard on Bower’s Twelfth Night.
Twelfth Night runs at 7 p.m. on July 26 and 30 (also at 2 p.m. on July 25 and Aug. 1).
King Lear will be staged at 7 p.m. July 24, 25, 29, 31 and Aug. 1 (also at 2 p.m. on July 26 and Aug. 2).
For the first time, a beer tent will be available at the outdoor site. As well, special performances will be held by Bull Skit and Tree House Youth Theatre on July 25 and Aug. 1.