Cincy Shakes Opens Season with Compelling “King Lear”

Review by Doug Iden, LCT

King Lear rages onto the stage as the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company opens the season with a compelling and different version of the Shakespearean tragedy.   Shakespeare weaves the story of greed, politics, family dysfunction, ethics, narcissism and power mongering through the eyes, and increasingly agonizing mind, of a man rapidly descending into despair and insanity.

King Lear, played masterfully by Jim Hopkins, has decided to step down as monarch and chooses to split his kingdom into equal parts for his three daughters, based upon their familial love for him.  Fatal flaw number one.  Both Regan (Miranda McGee) and Goneril (Kelly Mengelkoch) gush with adoration while Cordelia (Candice Handy) demurs.  Of the three, Cordelia truly loves her father while the other two consider him a doddering fool but flatter him in anticipation of their inheritances.

You already know the rest of the story. The production itself combines theatrical wizardry with extraordinary acting (which you expect from CSC), unexpected humor and some truly original and unique elements.

Before the opening performance, CSC and the City of Cincinnati acknowledged Brian Isaac Phillips (who is also the director of this show) for his 20 years of service and leadership to the organization.  Sarah Clarke and the current head of the CSC Board, presented Phillips with a proclamation from the Mayor of Cincinnati listing his accomplishments.

The set design (by Justen Locke) immediately indicates that this is going to be a unique production.  In the middle of the back of the stage, there is a large tower and the hint of a castle in a motif resembling art deco. On the thrust stage is a table filled with garbage bags and a large grate in the center.  Sprinkled throughout are garbage cans adorned with graffiti.  As the play begins, we see the entire cast dressed as homeless people dancing to a rap song.  The homeless–desperate and anxious– theme is carried throughout the play.

In the opening scene, we see the principal characters dressed, mostly, in modern garb, with Lear announcing his intended departure and redistribution of his land in front of a live televised audience. Lear is playing to the camera as he makes his foolish announcements.  The overall costuming by Rainy Edwards covers the gamut with modern suits and ties, homeless rags, masks from Restoration Comedy, medieval garb, etc.  But the coup de grace is the Fool’s outfit which is not only traditional but almost becomes a character itself.  Andrew J. Hungerford is the Lighting  Designer and Doug Borntrager is the Sound & Projections Designer.

Jim Hopkins as Lear commands the stage.  He is physically a big man with a shock of white hair but it is his bluster, ranting, raving, and railing that dominates the space. Hopkins, essentially, plays multiple characters ranging from the narcissistic egomaniac at the start to the doddering fool that he really is, to the depths of despair.  In one highlight scene, Lear is divested of all trappings of royalty, naked symbolically, wearing the fool’s cap and the fool’s makeup.  Lear and the Fool (Jeremy Dubin) have literally and figuratively changed places.  Hopkins carries the production.

Another outstanding moment is the storm scene, reminiscent of the chaos engulfing everyone.  The Fool, Lear and Kent (Matt Davies) are trying to console themselves when the rain starts (literally) as the three actors are drenched on stage.

Dubin, who often plays the “comic relief”, is cunningly clever as the only character who knows the truth and is willing to tell it.  His initial introduction is as a “stand-up comedian” doing his “fools” shtick.  Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom and played beautifully by Brent Vimtrup) is another key component.  McGee and Mengelkoch are deliciously greedy, vicious and deceitful.  The remainder of the cast is equally good.

Some other unique and humorous elements include two characters “texting” each other seen by the audience through screen projections.  Lear uses his scepter as a microphone while doing a mock nightclub act.

Overall, this is an excellent production with many unusual and updated elements.  Initially, I was somewhat confused but, quickly, got into the spirit of Philips’ production. So, don’t be Lear(y) about attending this production of King Lear running at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company  through October 1.  Click  HERE for more information and tickets. Their next show is The Living Dead just in time for Halloween running from October 14 through October 29.

Featured: Cast of King Lear  | Photography: Mikki Schaffner

Doug Iden is an avid, lifelong theater fan with an extensive collection of original cast albums. He also teaches classes on musical theater at OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).