Director Eric Seale gives the audience no clues about his directorial vision in the playbill for Actors Guild of Lexington's production of King Lear. Nor is there a convenient plot summary that often appears in programs for Shakespearean plays. But you know what? That's OK.
I understand why theaters include these tools, but I applaud Seale for letting the play speak for itself and for trusting his cast to perform Shakespeare in an accessible way.
During Thursday's opening-night performance of King Lear, the overall clarity of the performers' speech and their sharp characterizations were refreshing and relatable, something that could be said for the entire production.
The contemporary costuming by Julieanne Pogue in a palette of muted colors is one of the few clues as to where and when this version of King Lear is happening. However, I did not interpret the costuming as indicative of a contemporary twist, or any twist, so much as Seale's way of making the story and characters relatable. It could be happening in 1985 or 2035 or 35 B.C., but the costuming and timeless scenic design are merely functional. Like the playbill, they seem designed to get out of the way of the story.
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One of Seale's bolder directorial choices is the inclusion of an ensemble of "shadows," all in black, including their faces. They were part onstage stagehand (whipping out props and moving set pieces), part silent, metaphorical chorus (embodying the darkness enveloping Lear and his kingdom), part supporting cast (occasionally donning a traditional theater mask to become a minor character).
I appreciate both the practical and poetic uses of this choice, but the face coverings combined with the masks unavoidably muffles the performers' speech, one of the few hindrances to the play's full accessibility. On the other hand, not having to digest the identity of minor players (and Shakespeare is full of them) is an editing choice I appreciate.
Another similar moment is when Lear is on the brink of a descent into madness. Kudos to the tech crew for re-creating rainfall onstage, but the sound of the water combined with a roaring storm makes it hard to hear title actor Robert Parks Johnson's bellowing, Elizabethan cri de coeur, although it effectively conveyed a wild and disturbed sense of dark majesty.
Johnson's portrayal of the dejected Lear is full of gravitas, heartbreak and a fascinating kaleidoscope of unkempt emotion. Supporting roles by Mark Smith, John Code, Thomas Gibbs, Schann Mobley, Dmetrius Conley- Williams, Harper Toney, Nathaniel M. Barrett and Will Drane are strong and easily graspable. Marshall Manley is particularly enjoyable in his role of Kent in disguise; hearing Elizabethan English in a tough New York accent is strangely compelling.
In one of the most innovative casting choices, Ashleigh Chrisena Ricci delivers a delightful, quirkily humorous performance as the Fool.
Despite a couple of creative choices that prove to be both strengths and liabilities, Actors Guild's King Lear is solid and interesting, emotionally moving in fits and bursts, and it leaves the audience asking the right kinds of questions after the show.
What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of William Shakespeare's play.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 8-9, 14-16; 2 p.m. Nov. 10.
Where: Actors Guild of Lexington, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and senior adults, $10 military. Available at Actors-guild.com and 1-866-811-4111.