KING LEARBy William Shakespeare
Directed by Bert Pigg
Stage Managed by Patrick Peachee
Music Direction by Joshua Hahlen
Costume Design by Jessie Wallace
Makeup Design by Kristin Colaneri
Fight Choreography by David Saldivar
King Lear: Malcolm Stephenson
Goneril: Octavia Y. Thomas
Duke of Albany: Grady W Smithey III
Oswald: Joshua Hahlen
Regan: Madyson Greenwood
Duke of Cornwall: Blake Hametner
Cordelia: Marisa Duran
Earl of Kent: Tommy Stuart
Fool: Joel Frapart
Earl of Gloucester: Adriana Bate
Edgar: Andrew Manning
Edmund: Meagan Harris
Reviewed Performance: 10/1/2022
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Director Bert Pigg revealed this motivation for taking on one of the most difficult Shakespeare plays as the inaugural production of Auriga Productions, a new producing company in DFW. Performances of King Lear opened this weekend at Bath House Cultural Center on White Rock Lake. This play choice and this production introduce this new association formed by Bert Pigg and Meagan Harris with the description, “dedicated to producing works of quality, resonance, and timelessness.” Mission accomplished!
As the play opened, a strong drumbeat, echoed by the caverns of the Bath House, marking time as columns of cast marched downstairs and through the small audience to the edge of the stage. This marked the martial character of this play and the lives of people in 500AD. As they entered, actors moved to a series of large stumps around the stage perimeter, where they sat when not on-stage acting. This military opening set the tone of a story of family and friends that would devolve into chaos and tragedy.
It's fitting that King Lear is being presented outdoors since so much of the story is outdoors. Lit by the stars amongst the trees at the edge of White Rock, with a dark lake as the backdrop just yards away, there was a sense of being in the story, part of the natural world that consumed Lear and his British reign.
An area of grass lawn behind the Bath House became the playing area for all scenes. The action is set in locales across Britain, though you’d need to know the story or listen to the text to know where you were at any point. Perhaps it didn’t matter that much.
This stage was lit and defined by a half-ring of hurricane lamps and a string of candle footlights, though a bit of lighting came from led light stands and the Bath House building behind us. I was particularly impressed by the half-moon hanging over the lake. It was a nice touch! Temperatures were mild, though it was good to have layering as the night got cooler.
Most people know of the King Lear story, though only an overview. This story is often designated as the most tragic in the Shakespeare canon, though some would point at Hamlet, Othello, or Macbeth. Scholars point to this story because almost everyone dies and only one person is left to take the reign as King. This makes it harder to watch, as there seems to be no overarching message – it’s certainly more depressing than other plays. Other tragedies provide a view of the definition of tragedy in Shakespeare’s time, the Poetics of Aristotle. The tragedy is supposed to teach a lesson through the characters’ suffering and learning. There’s little of that with Lear.
Lear is the aged King of Britain in a time when there were both land conflicts and marriage-defined arrangements to control land. After a lifetime of believing his constituents and family all loved him unconditionally, he splits the kingdom into three sections with the idea of gifting his three daughters a section each. But, in a fit of raging arrogance, he demands each should express their undying love for him. In that opening scene, as he brings the royalty together for his abdication, events begin that eventually lead to monumental tragedy.
There are two storylines in this play. The first is the dysfunction of Lear’s family. The other plays out the story of The Earl of Gloucester. A ruler of 3rd rank in English royalty controls a province of the kingdom under the rule of a Duke or the King. This Earl is a long-time ally of Lear and like him in many ways. In an opening scene not played in this adaptation, Gloucester becomes a failed parent, just like Lear, having sired a bastard son, Edmund, while his legitimate son, Edgar, is the apple of his eye. He reveals this in the missing scene and provides a motivation for Edmund to become the evilest of all characters. He is jealous of his stepbrother and ready to take his share of the estate. With a made-up plot about Edgar threatening Gloucester, this storyline folds into the Lear story to create tragic circumstances.
Lear was played by Malcolm Stephenson. Wanting to play this iconic role was a goal for him, likely because it’s known it’s an ultimate challenge, normally portrayed by exceptional actors. Stephenson had to create one of the strongest character arcs in the cannon, moving from an arrogant powerful monarch to a sniveling nobody, to the revelation of his faults, and ultimately his death. Stephenson was magnificent casting for this role as his character reel on IMDB shows he has great chops to pull off this character. His voice and body reflected the emotional turmoil Lear was in, in the beginning as Lear learns his favored daughter will spurn him, most notably on the heath as he unloads his conscience amidst a thunderstorm, and later as he anguishes over the death of his daughter. What’s timeless about this character is that he is horrified by a perceived rejection by a daughter, after which he banishes her, and then reels from the expulsion by his two older daughters, after gifting them total power over him. This is the deep lesson about fatherhood Lear experiences.
This theme was also reflected in the bio of another character. “If you've ever seen a family argument lead to years - or a lifetime - of relatives refusing to speak to each other again, you've lived through this story in some form." This sentiment by Grady W Smithey III, playing the Duke of Albany, connects the audience to that dystopian theme. There’s precious little to provide an antidote, though maybe being kind to your kids would be close. Lear, in the hands of Stephenson, surely showed the consequences of Lear’s misreading of his family loyalties.
There are other characters in the full play, the King of France for one, who takes Cordelia as his wife. But he was cut from this adaptation. He doesn’t count much in the message of this production, but it’s important to know that Lear, as disgusted as he was by Cordelia’s rejection, did not send her into a cold world. He pledged her to someone as powerful as he, the King of France, who then provided power for Cordelia to return to reconcile with Lear.
Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia are Lear’s daughters, his only family. Like all families, these daughters have different character flaws.
Goneril is the oldest and most distant. Married to the Duke of Albany through what was likely an arranged marriage, she is the closest in temperament to her father. Octavia Y. Thomas showed through her text and an air of superiority the disdain Goneril likely holds for her father’s demands on her life, though she is first to cow down to Lear’s demands to declare her love. It was obvious to all but him how hollow that gesture was. Lear tries to live with her first, but she soon finds his demands to be a burden and drives him away. Thomas constantly allows Goneril’s frustration with Lear to make her own demands on him seem reasonable, to ultimately reject him, and eventually banish him. She’s said to be evil at heart by some, but I see in Thomas’ performance a daughter trying unsuccessfully to reason with her father. That fails.
Regan is the middle daughter, married to the Duke of Cornwall, and vastly different. In fact, after Goneril’s declaration of love to Lear, she demands that she loves him more than her sister could. In this, Madyson Greenwood as Regan showed a daughter not only to be the kiss-ass sister, a sign of her deep resentments against Lear but one who’s ready to stab her sister in the back to get her share. In fact, Regan is inherently more violent than Goneril and one of the evil characters in this story. As Greenwood played Regan, these submerged feelings slowly came out. There’s subtext obvious in Regan’s dialogs, but Greenwood voices it perfectly, with simmering hate that eventually explodes into Regan’s acts.
Cordelia is a breath of fresh air in Lear’s life, and he clearly loves her most. He’s set to give her the best part of his kingdom. Favoritism never bodes well in families - creates lifelong resentments, all of which will drive Cordelia’s fate. Marisa Duran showed an innocence of youth in Cordelia during her sisters’ disgusting declarations. But as Lear turns his demands to her, Cordelia is unable to comply. It’s against her spirit. It’s a confusing betrayal. And in her refusal to give a false declaration, he erupts against her. She’s both damaged and devastated. Duran plays this sense of incredulous betrayal as Cordelia is driven away. In time, Cordelia returns to England with her goodness intact. We see a wiser and stronger character, one of Shakespeare’s best female characters.
Daughters were often married to distant lords to facilitate political alliances, which brings other characters into the story. The Duke of Albany (Grady W Smithey III) is Goneril’s husband and willing partner in much of her struggles with Lear. He is a bit meek in the beginning, dismayed by the whole abdication scene, but supports his wife. Smithey was quiet and soft-spoken in the beginning. In time, as Albany learns of Goneril’s hidden actions, especially an affair, Albany is driven to anger, and Smithey became more energetic and animated. Albany reveals the conspiracies and turns toward good. He’s also left standing as the heir to the kingdom but abdicates to a new, better king. Smithey shows a character change in Albany, though too little, too late.
The Duke of Cornwall (Blake Hametner) is different. Like his wife, Regan, he is cruel to the extreme. He has the drive to believe false accusations about Lear and Gloucester but seems gleeful about torturing people he suspects. As Cornwall, Hametner created a man who loves to unleash the power he gained through Lear’s actions and spurs his wife to the violence he loves. They reject Lear and send him into the storms to die, and then torture Gloucester.
Gloucester (Adriana Bate), in an opening scene cut from this version, boasts about his macho exploits which begat Edmund, the anti-hero in this story, right in front of Edmund. This triggered jealousy in Edmund to cause most of the violent acts. Edmund (Meagan Harris) exudes quiet, seething jealousy and hate for this royal family and his father. Harris regularly broke the 4th wall to engage the audience on Edmund’s plans, which allowed her to expose Edmund’s plots, almost confessional, though reveling in the joy of it. Harris’ dialogs with other characters allowed her to play off Edmund’s feigned truths convincingly, raising Edmund’s heroism while expressing how much Edmund enjoyed plotting. Edgar (Andrew Manning) is the first hapless victim of Edmund’s conspiracy and, like Cordelia, is one of the innocent and good people. Gloucester banishes him based on conspiracy and Edgar goes on the lam, changes to Poor Tom, and performs one of the great crazed scenes in the cannon, exactly where Lear and Gloucester will encounter their delusions. This is a large character arc, from his status as the son of an Earl, to fear for his life, to a spell as a hermit in the wild, to the savior of his father, and finally King of England. Manning showed a breadth of emotional swings through this while keeping Edgar true to his deepest mettle.
Three minor characters are, typically for Shakespeare, particularly important to the story. Lear’s Fool (Joel Frapart) is unwavering as help to Lear. Shakespeare writes fools in his plays because they are characters that a king depends on, allowing them to be critical of the king, even while making fun of that king. The fool has a special status in telling the king what Shakespeare thinks about him. He probably voices the beliefs of the audience. You might call him a conscience. For this production, Frapart may be an ideal casting. He let fly the highly physical expression in the role, close to acrobatic, a little outrageous. Through the flowery, slightly insulting, song-style language of the text, Frapart showed Fool’s love for the king through all of Lear’s faults. The Fool ridicules Lear for his actions while supporting the man through his painful journey to redemption. The Fool may be his greatest friend but will pay dearly for it. Frapart gave a performance fools of all ages would applaud.
The Earl of Kent (Tommy Stuart) played another important character. Kent ingratiates himself into Lear’s circle by countering and opposing Lear’s Fool, and later Goneril’s advisor. He becomes a silent protector to Lear, though Lear doesn’t know it. This is a martial character ready to fight Lear’s battles. He connects with Cordelia and facilitates the reconciliation. Stuart provided Kent with a strong martial attitude, a friend who’s ready to take on all threats to Lear. He gave Kent a total sense of loyalty to Lear. Oswald (Joshua Hahlen) is, however, Goneril’s steward, the same champion for her as Kent is for Lear. He’s willing to carry out her orders, even if it means killing. He is at odds with Kent from the beginning and eventually fights to the death. Hahlen committed to Oswald’s loyalty to Goneril the same as Kent committed to Lear. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Hahlen also was listed as Music Director, which mostly consisted of lots of drumming and a bit of singing, though the astute musical patron will hear a bit of Peter Gabriel and Rolling Stones. I loved that.
Jessie Wallace as Costume Designer provided what, in my limited costuming knowledge, would call gothic, though Celtic 500AD might be the desired style. It’s hard to know since young people of today wear such costumes in all sorts of contexts. Mostly leathers, silks, and heavy cotton dresses, actors wore garb that befitted their station. There was little costume change, though characters on the heath also sported the latest in crazy people garb and Lear and others spent some time shirtless. See the photos for examples of these costumes and how they were unified by makeup.
Makeup Designer Kristin Colaneri created design marks for all characters that made them look like Celtic, Gaelic, Gothic, or British middle-ages. Perhaps they were not as much tied to a time period as showing that cusp between the Isles’ long-held pagan beliefs and the dawning of Christianity, a time of great uncertainty about right and wrong. Regardless, these markings differentiated the actors. In the night lighting, it was hard to see those markings clearly. Still, they were striking and I’m guessing there was a kind of ritual to create these for each performance that imbued a feel for the character into each actor.
Finally, Fight Choreographer David Saldivar provided several fight scenes that lent credence to the martial nature of this story and its associated violence. There were tortures, fights, arguments, killings, and dispatching of evil characters, though good died as well. These were mostly physical or knife fights – I don’t remember any swords – but it appeared the actors took their violence lessons well and reveled in playing those scenes.
In the spirit of constructive feedback, there are three directorial things that would improve this production. Please note that these are just one person’s artistic eye observing the piece from a different pair of lenses.
The lakeside setting is fabulous, and the ringed stage area is visibly appealing. But in 500AD, Southwest Airlines didn’t run a steady stream of outbound jets over the lake. That’s a reality at White Rock, so vocal timing and dynamics are critical to overcoming the noise to convey the text. And, while the Texas State Fair is 5-miles away, the loud midway sounds in the evening air skip across the water and distract the focus which an audience needs to apply to this kind of deep story. Finally, the Celtic Cross is a centerpiece at the top of the stage, a beautiful piece of set, but when Cordelia finds her father laying under the cross and tries to reconnect, we must hear those words clearly. That’s the furthest point from the seats. Indoors, that sound would carry easily – outside, you lose the vocal energy quickly. It needs to be louder or move the scene closer. Those tender moments are rare in this play. They are crucial to the ending.
King Lear at White Rock Lake is an experience, though not one for squeamish folk. You won’t walk away thinking, “Well, that’s nice. It all worked out in the end.” Take a bottle of wine to take the edge off and watch the violence unfold. It is not prurient violence – there are reasons for all of it – and it’s very quick. This is a story that speaks of family dysfunction. Somewhere I read a promotion like, “Lear discovers the fragility of the family as he descends into madness.” Yes, fragility. We all have that in our families somewhere, though likely not with the same consequences as Lear and Gloucester. In most tragedies, character violence and death are visited on those who somehow deserve it. With Lear, even undeserving, pure, innocent, good people also die needlessly. Does that speak to the world we see around us?
We often see senseless killings of innocents and anguish to make sense of it. In some stories, such as world events here and abroad, people needlessly die every day. Lear and Gloucester made grave mistakes but are not worthy of death. Cordelia, Lear’s Fool, maybe even Edmund, who tried, unsuccessfully, to repent his evils, died. It’s pretty depressing – like school shootings or street violence or foreign wars against innocent populations. Shakespeare must have seen this in his life. He played this story first for his patron King James. Was there a special message to him?
With deeper thought, I liked this performance. It was a brave challenge for Auriga Productions to jump into the deep end to begin their life in the DFW theater scene. This showed a strong passion and penchant for telling stories with controversial themes and content. I look forward to seeing what’s next. In the meantime, I suggest you see this show any weekend through October 22. It’s well worth your time. Just go knowing there are no happy endings.
Outdoors at the Bath House Cultural Center
White Rock Lake, 521 East Lawther Drive, Dallas, TX. 75218
Plays through October 22
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm
General Admission tickets are $20 per person.
Students and Seniors are $15.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit auriga-productions.ticketleap.com/-king-Lear.