I have had the pleasure of seeing all 37 Shakespeare plays performed professionally with many like Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear multiple times. I love seeing Shakespeare done well. That is why I was so thrilled to spend a Sunday afternoon at Quintessence Theatre Group’s current production of King Lear. Directed by Alexander Burns with a colorblind and gender-neutral cast, this production mines the nuances and intentions of Shakespeare’s language with great integrity.
The production begins and ends in the lobby where there is a well-crafted map of the kingdom. It is there that each of his daughters must declare her love for Lear. The eldest two Goneril and Regan play the sycophants and flatter her father. The youngest is honest and is disowned by the hurt old man. In addition, he banishes his loyal soldier Kent for pleading Cordelia’s case.
The audience is then moved inside to the stage where they sit on both sides of the action. This is done quickly and orderly as to not disturb the flow of the play. It is there we are introduced to Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son whose treachery is unbridled. The time on the main stage tells the story of Lear’s true betrayal, and how the fates rise against his folly. This is a play about betrayal. Nearly everyone is betrayed including the king’s fool. The final scenes return to the lobby where the playwright leaves us in a singularly unsatisfying ending.
King Lear is an exercise in pessimistic truth. The production at Quintessence attacks that premise. There is no holding back on the mixture of betrayal, greed and folly. Shakespeare’s words support nothing else. Alexander Burns culls the fullness of these words from this exceptional cast. Guest artist Robert Jason Jackson keeps Lear consistently foolish. Lear is foolhardy due mainly to overconfidence and arrogance that proceeds from that. His stentorian voice keeps his interpretation of the foolish king unwavering. He is not a man who learns easily. He goes immediately from betrayal to self-loathing and stays there. His strength comes from those who support him, Gregory Isaac as loving, loyal Kent and D.J. Gleason with a uniquely wise interpretation of Lear’s fool.
As the evil Edmund, J. Hernandez is equally charming and treacherous. He takes Shakespeare’s calculated language and fashions an unforgettable villain. He betrays first his brother Edgar, a peripatetic Jake Lowenthal and his mother, E. Ashley Izard who turns reversal of character gender into a fascinating interpretation of this character. The nurturing nature of the mother adds an interesting dimension to both her interpretation and the reactions of her sons. Donnie Hammond (Goneril) and Anita Holland (Regan) are wonderful at keeping each one’s evil intentions both similar and unique. Eunice Akinola (Cordelia) is as sweet as her sisters are callous. The rest of the cast performs their functions admirably and professionally.
Director Burns is supported well by the set (Burns designed AND directed) and sound design. It worked so well. It was as if he was in the mind of the director. Jane Casanave’s costumes are consistent and utilitarian, a perfect addition to the production. Ellen Moore’s lighting design is stark, but in keeping with the spare nature of the production values. Fight director Ian Rose uses the manifest skills of his actors to create realistic yet safe encounters. King Lear runs until April 20th at the Sedgwick Theater 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia 19119. For tickets and information call 215-967-4450 or go to their website QTGREP.org.
Photo by Linda Johnson