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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lear Laid Bare

Alchemist stages Shakespeare’s timeless tale

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Let’s see: adultery, betrayal, infidelity, murder, mutilation and the requisite sibling rivalry in a fight for power, lust and gold. Just another modern day reality TV show? Something to do with really, really desperate “housewives”? Not quite.

Back in Shakespeare’s day, it could only play in the theater live onstage as King Lear. And Alchemist Theatre has done the Bard proud with its current production of the tale of the too-proud king and his daughters, two treacherous schemers and one caring innocent (how else can there be conflict among the three sisters?).

Director Leda Hoffmann has chosen wisely in all aspects of this staging: a shortened version of a very long tale (150 minutes including intermission), well-placed staging given a small stage and a 17-member cast—a very solid ensemble with a number of standout performances.

Lear’s tale is timeless and as contemporary as anything on cable today: a vain man of power demands flattery rather than the bloody truth (pun intended). “Nothing will come from nothing, Speak again,” says Lear to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, after she fails to flatter like her two conniving sisters, Goneril and Regan. One longs to caution Lear to be careful what he asks for, but by then the wheels (and agents) of misfortune are already set into motion.

As Lear, Bo Johnson humanizes the egocentric royal in the plain brown suit as we watch the king’s humbling descent into his own self-made maelstrom of madness. This process is laid bare during Lear’s “dark night of the soul” speech in the midst of a violent storm. As wild and free as an untamable mustang on the plains, Johnson transforms the king into a common man, which makes this production all the more accessible and fascinating to watch.

Johnson is accompanied by a number of fine local actors including his trio of daughters, Libby Amato (Goneril), Anna Figlesthaler (Regan) and in an especially nuanced performance, Grace DeWolff as the innocent yet forthright Cordelia. Other strong performances include: David Flores (the Fool), Tim Linn (Edgar), Michael “Paco” Pocaro (Gloucester), Dylan Bolin (Kent) and a deliciously wicked portrayal of Edmund by Matt Wickey. Who knew such Machiavellian intrigues could be so much villainous fun?

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” bemoans the humbled king and hurt father. Be it on TV or onstage, reality bites.

King Lear runs through July 27 at Alchemist Theatre, 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For more information, visit thealchemisttheatre.com.