Monday, March 10, 2014

LEAR: Still Too Much Baggage?

Kevin Connell as Lear, Benjamin Farmer as Perillus, Stephanie Leppert
as Cordelia, Rebecca Ridenour as Goneril and Jessi Walters as Regan, photo
courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
The North American premier production of Lear by Bag & Baggage is a somewhat radical adaptation of Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy, King Lear, first performed a decade ago in Glasgow, Scotland.  Ashland regulars may disagree, but from our perspective Artistic Director Scott Palmer has done the world a great service by stripping the Bard’s work down from 20 characters (not counting servants, knights, and assorted hangers-on) to the spare cast of 5 currently treading the boards at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre. Even more commendable is his determination to strip away innumerable sub-plots and intrigues that may have been of interest to an Elizabethan audience, but serve today only to obscure the story’s central themes.

Kevin Connell as Lear, Stephanie Leppert as Cordelia and Rebecca
Ridenour as Goneril, photo courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
Our only real complaint is that Palmer did not go far enough. The story he tells, which is much less convoluted than the most famous of Shakespeare’s versions, incorporates elements of several different versions of the Lear (Leir) story.  In synthesizing the various sources, while retaining the Elizabethan language, Palmer occasionally lost us – did Perillus (a character from Leir, roughly analogous to the Earl of Kent in Shakespeare’s version) direct Lear to Dover to rendezvous with the King of France, or to hurl himself off the White Cliffs? Were both Cordelia and Perillus at various times donning masks to disguise themselves (even though Perillus had not, to all appearances, been banished)? We, (and perhaps other clueless audience members) would have benefited from a bit of additional expository dialogue to answer questions like these.  This strategy worked to marvelous effect in Palmer’s adaptation of Julius Caesar last summer, and we really missed his strategic insertions.

That said, the Bag and Baggage production is a powerhouse of innovative, yet traditional theater. The set is simple and beautiful – diaphanous, colorful hanging shreds of curtain evoking the elegance and decay of Lear’s kingdom. The lighting design similarly accents the tale – at times creating a castle interior, at other times an eerie, storm-tossed heath. Both set and lighting design help to keep the story moving – rather than waiting through prolonged, dark scene changes, the audience is allowed to focus on the story and use its imagination to create the appropriate background for each scene. The original musical score, performed live by composer Tylor Neist, subtly enhances the show’s most dramatic moments without unduly distracting the audience’s attention.

Jessi Walters as Regan, Benjamin Farmer as Perillus, Kevin Connell as
Lear, Stephanie Leppert as Cordelia and Rebecca Ridenour as Goneril, photo
courtesy of Casey Campbell Photography
The show’s greatest asset is the exceptional quality of the cast. Despite our occasional confusion about minor textual details, the play’s themes are made crystal clear by the five actors. Kevin Connell (“Lear”) delivers a moving performance as he descends from arrogant familial and royal despot to pathetic, broken madman. Despite the uniformly intense emotional level of the role, he modulates his delivery enough to avoid the sins of overacting. Rebecca Ridenour is convincing as the hypocritical and devious, but ultimately repentant, eldest daughter Goneril – she demonstrates sincere horror when sister Regan (Jessi Walters) violently disfigures Perillus. Walters is every father’s nightmare – greedy, vicious, and completely heartless. She uses her powerful voice and stark facial expressions to convey the unfathomable evil of her character. Stephanie Leppert (youngest daughter Cordelia) combines sweetness, honesty, loyalty, and self-confidence to portray a young woman of unparalleled strength and courage. Like Cordelia, Lear’s manservant Perillus (Benjamin Farmer) clearly has his master’s best interests at heart throughout; ironically, it is traitorous daughter Regan who punishes him for his alleged treason. Both Farmer and Leppert bring skillfully nuanced delivery to their emotionally complex roles.

Once again, Bag & Baggage is bringing challenging and groundbreaking theater to the Venetian’s stage. While not perfect, the show provides a compelling and provocative evening of intense and beautifully staged drama.

Bag & Baggage’s Lear is playing at Hillsboro’s Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main Street, through March 23, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm.


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