I’ve seen a good many Lears in the years we’ve been visiting Ashland – medieval and modern, spare and opulent, willful and wan. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so accessible a King Lear as this year’s production.
Not coincidentally, this version is being staged in the Festival’s newest space – it’s finally been named the Thomas Theater, after several seasons of being called simply the “New Theater”. It’s a small, highly reconfigurable black box – in this case, arranged in the round with just a few furnishings and props. But I’m not using “accessible” in its purely physical sense here, even though that’s part of the show’s success. Nor am I thinking only of one of the Fool’s first scenes, in which a couple of audience members were briefly drawn into the stage business, though that’s part of it too.
Rather, this is perhaps the first iteration of Lear I’ve seen that seems to me to break unreservedly out of its Shakespearean shell and really connect with its audience on a personal level, irrespective of whether one is a theater buff, a Shakespeare scholar, or a literature geek. The language is just as it’s always been, so it will satisfy loyalists, but the production as a whole assimilates the language and delivers a show that speaks more viscerally and directly than mere words can convey.
Two performances in particular drive the intimacy: Michael Winters (one of two actors alternating as Lear) is utterly compelling; he balances Shakespeare’s dialogue beautifully with a characterization of Lear that is at once vivid, powerful, and familiar – rarely will you see a Lear described as “charming”, but there are moments here where the word fits, and others where Winters’ delivery is as easy and conversational as you might hear around a card table at your neighborhood senior center. And young Daisuke Tsuji is a bright, personable, and perceptive Fool, with all the energy of a street comic and the careful precision of a master sensei. These two stand out among a uniformly excellent cast, and the staging is brisk and energetic, with performers ranging among the audience and into the rafters as the show progresses. And for all its accessibility, the production doesn’t lose touch with the classic elements that make Lear one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies.
Some of my drama-buff tourmates may disagree (we’ll find out later tonight), but I call this one of the best Lears I’ve seen, period, and not to be missed if the opportunity is available.