Monday, March 17, 2014

Lear—Bag & Baggage Theatre—Hillsboro, OR

Lear’s Shadow

The production of Lear by Shakespeare, et. al. is adapted for the stage and directed by Scott Palmer (B&B’s Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E. Main St. in Hillsboro, OR through March 23rd.  For more information, go to their site at

This production of the Lear story is unique, in that it incorporates this tale from at least a half dozen sources.  It was not unusual for writers, including Shakespeare, to “borrow” ideas for stories from history, legends, folklore, and previously written tales.  All his plays came from different sources.  And now Palmer can add his name to that list by giving us a whole new view of this famous play by combining the sources and, magically, making sense out of it all.

This adaptation rests almost solely on the King and his relationships with his daughters.  In it Lear (Kevin Connell), again, slipping into dotage in his golden years, foolishly, perhaps, wants his daughters to declare their love for him before he divides up his kingdom amongst them.  Goneril (Rebecca Ridenour) and Regan (Jessi Walters) rattle on empty platitudes, trying to outdo each other, in praising him, hoping to get a better and larger chunk of the bounty.

The sensible one, the youngest, Cordelia (Stephanie Leppert), simply states that her love is no more or less than duty calls, from a daughter toward a father.  Either Lear is too blinded by vanity or senility to see through his older daughters’ ruses, or his youngest is too dense to realize the gamesmanship needed for such an awkward gathering, but the entire outcome of the story is dependent on this moment.  He, in a rage, disinherits and banishes his favorite and the kingdom is put in jeopardy.

The rest of the story follows the disintegration of Lear and his kingdom.  Gone are the characters of the husbands of the two eldest daughters, the villainous Edmund, and the loyal Kent and Edgar.  But Lear’s alter-ego, the Fool, is represented by Cordelia, in a mask, also giving credence, perhaps, to the line, “my poor fool is hanged,” after his youngest is murdered.  A fifth character is added, Perillus (Benjamin Farmer), to represent those loyal to Lear, such as Poor Tom (a disguised Edgar) and, chiefly, Gloucester.

The advantages of this adaptation are that we get a closer view of the King’s relationships with his daughters.  In Shakespeare’s version, it is all pretty superficial and his two oldest are simply portrayed as vain and villainous from the start.  In this one we see the complications of sibling rivalry, with Regan pictured as the more devious and Goneril having some serious doubts about the treachery.  Goneril also has a monologue to her dead mother, a character never referred to in the Bard’s version, but it does shed some more depth to the heritage.

And the connection/union between Cordelia and the Fool is pure genius.  I had always thought that they were meant to be, at least, kissing cousins.  Although Fools/Clowns were often used as devices in Shakespeare’s plays, as a sort of alter-ego/conscience to a character, saying what he might be thinking, and showing sardonic wisdom, where there appeared to be none. This is a wonderful marriage of that concept.  His daughter/Fool touches on the guilt and insanity of her father’s actions, possibly catapulting him into madness and inevitable death, jointly.

All in all, a very satisfying production.  The set (Megan Wilkerson), lighting (George Caldwell), music (Tylor Neist) and video projections (Jade Morgan & Sandra Conlon) all add nicely to this mysterious, dream-like quality the production has.  They are obviously all on the same page.  And the debris around the playing area, might represent the clutter in a Lear’s mind of regrets and longings.  The play is presented in a type of storytelling style--stream-lined, simplified and synthesized to embrace the complexities of one man’s mind and existence.

Connell is terrific as Lear.  His slips into melancholia, rages, reflections and lucidity are quite convincing.  The role is pulsating with power and so is the actor.  Leppert does a convincing job as both the youngest and the Fool.  Ridenour and Walters as the two eldest are both exacting in their portrayals, giving us a clear distinction between the two when, in the Bard’s story, there is none.  And Farmer gives ample support, especially as the character of Gloucester.

Palmer has again pulled off a minor miracle, like he did in …Gatsby, in adapting famous stories to the stage and actually making these classics viewable and understandable.  I look forward to future inventions of his.  They have a season announcement event on April 19th which might be well worth while to see what is next in store for this worthwhile company in a historic setting, the Venetian theatre.

I recommend this production but know that it only has one more week to run so get your tickets now. And it might be worthwhile to also see Shakespeare’s original King Lear, now playing at the NW classical theatre at the Shoebox space, so you can make a comparison in their stories.   If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.

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