The grandeur of William Shakespeare’s King Lear is almost universally recognized. English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley referred to it as “the most perfect specimen of dramatic poetry existing in the world.” Early 20th century English literary critic A.C. Bradley referred to it as “Shakespeare’s greatest achievement.”
A play this great deserves a production of the same caliber. Fortunately for us, Raleigh, NC’s Honest Pint Theatre Company and Fayetteville, NC’s Sweet Tea Shakespeare have collaborated on a production of King Lear’s provides just that.
For the uninitiated: King Lear is an aged king of ancient Britain who is about to retire. He is prepared to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, but he wants their flattery first. His youngest, dearest daughter (Cordelia) states that she is unable to out-do the hyperbolic flattery that her older sisters (Goneril and Regan) have heaped upon their father. Hurt and enraged, Lear disowns her; he then banishes the Earl of Kent (one of his closest, most loyal friends) for the “crime” of speaking in Cordelia’s defense. Soon thereafter, the two older daughters treacherously turn on their father.
Meanwhile, another friend of Lear’s, the Earl of Gloucester, has family problems of his own. Edmund (Gloucester’s younger, illegitimate son) hatches a vicious plot to supplant Edgar (the older, legitimate heir).
Madness and mayhem … disasters, destructions, and deaths ensue.
Director Jeremy Fiebig doubles as scenic designer; and the layout of the set is an interesting variation of the performance spaces that The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s company) used. There is seating on three sides, creating a thrust stage. In addition, the stage-left and stage-right seats are very similar to the onstage seating that was always available in 16th and 17th century theaters. And the design includes an upstage three-door layout similar to that of the King’s Men’s Globe and Blackfriars theaters. Deft use of these three doors (as well as the upstage left and upstage right corners of the stage), coupled with precise timing, make for smooth, quick transitions between scenes. The playbill also credits Meredith Riggin as scenic artist and Barry Jaked as scenic fabricator.
Jeremy Fiebig directs a superb cast, and there is an intense chemistry among them. Simon Kaplan’s Lear is, indeed “every inch a king.” We do not need Kent (when disguised as Caius) to establish: “You have that in your countenance which I would fain call master.”
Kaplan exudes that air from the very start. He’s specially impressive when Lear”snubbed,” “accosted,” “insulted,” etc. We could see the hurt that Lear felt before the anger and the rage. And there is an intensity in the bond between Lear and his Fool.
When Lear asks, “Where’s my knave? my fool?” we detect a depth to his desire to see this companion who “hath much pined away” since Cordelia’s departure (i.e. The Fool is not simply a source of entertainment; she is a cherished companion.) Pay attention to the blocking of the opening fanfare; the placement of Lear and the Fool may have helped create this expectation — an excellent directing choice. It is also worth mentioning that Kaplan very capably handles the progression of Lear’s descent into madness.
Speaking of The Fool, Samantha Corey is impressive in this role. Everything that this Fool says has a purpose. Even when she makes her decisions quickly, we frequently “see the gears turning” in her brain as she considers her options. The Fool possesses a “natural” kind of wisdom that she relies on as she serves her king. Her brain might work differently than that a “normal” person, but we can see it working.
David Henderson makes us “love to hate” his character — the scheming, Machiavellian Edmund. Like the “vice” character in medieval morality plays, Edmund delights in his machinations; and Henderson imbues the character with a certain charm that makes us feel a guilty kind of admiration for Edmund’s skill, even as we recoil in horror at his actions.
Aaron C. Alderman delivers an Edgar who trusts his brother not so much out of naiveté as out of a love and a family loyalty. His passionate devotion to Gloucester (their father), even as Gloucester seeks to have him killed, is motivated by a similar love and respect.
Alderman’s transition to Edgar’s disguise as the lunatic Tom o’Bedlam is also impressive. “We” can see Edgar behind this persona, making decisions and laying plans; but the other characters never suspect.
Wade Newhouse skillfully navigates his way through the Earl of Kent’s fall from fortune and his return, disguised as a commoner named Caius. In a pivotal scene, Kent delivers an extended insult to Oswald (a knavish servant of one of the evil sisters); and Newhouse creates this exchange with aplomb.
Gus Allen plays Oswald with an entertaining blend of opportunistic knavery and foppish ambition. At times, the word “buffoon” came to mind.
Tohry Petty and Kaley Morrison (as Goneril and Regan, respectively) are intriguingly ambitious and self-centered as they collude to undermine their father’s plans for a carefree retirement. But they are not clones. Petty’s Goneril is the more self-assured of the two. And they are both decidedly different than the younger, more virtuous Cordelia (played by Jennifer Pommerenke).
Pommerenke gives us a Cordelia who is quite passionate in her early scenes. But it is in her reunion with her father in the final act that her skills shine.
Allan Maule (as Albany), Evan Bridestone (as Gloucester), and director Jeremy Fiebig himself (as Cornwall) round out the principal members of this strong cast. They are joined by Jessica Osnoe, Medina Demeter, and George Jack, who play multiple supporting roles.
Among the strengths of this production was the choice of how to handle the difficult staging of the apocalyptic storm that Lear faces when shut out in the elements. Pay attention — the thematic relevance of this choice is overwhelming.
Like all of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear contains plenty of comic scenes; and this production kept us entertained by playing all of them to the hilt. So, do not feel shy about laughing while attending a tragedy.
Directed by music director Jacob French (who also plays guitar and piano), the cast provides preshow, post-show, and intermission music. Several cast members play musical instruments, and all are talented singers. In fact, the pre-show starts 45 minutes before curtain time.
Aaron Alderman’s lighting design and Laura J. Parker’s costumes nicely augment the superb acting.
From The Department of Picky-Picky: In the “insult scene” when Kent (as Caius) exclaims to Oswald “draw, you rogue” and then denigrates him for not doing so, Oswald was not wearing a sword. Hopefully this was a one-time oversight, a mistake made on this one evening only. Also: while most of the fight scenes were very well handled, there was more than one in which it simply did not work for us.
We recommend this show to everybody. Shakespeare geeks (like us) will enjoy the variations, the decisions, and the dedication that make this production special. Novices will have no problem keeping up because every actor delivers each line with such honesty and conviction that even the sometimes obscure language is readily accessible. Honest Pint Theatre Company and Sweet Tea Shakespeare is a powerful combination. Indeed, they produced a King Lear that is a first-class, honest, sweet work of art.
The show plays one more weekend in Raleigh, in William Peace University’s Leggett Theater. It then moves to Fayetteville for one weekend (Sept. 28-30) in Fayetteville State University’s J.W. Seabrook Auditorium.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 13th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 2 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/arts/archives/2017/09/13/theater-review-after-his-audacious-hamlet-director-jeremy-fiebig-makes-another-theatrical-gamble-in-king-lear and Sept. 6th mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/king-lear/Event?oid=7891348; Sept. 9th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8609; and Sept. 1st Raleigh, NC Raleigh Magazine preview by Jane Porter: http://raleighmag.com/2017/09/every-ounce-king/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 12th Triangle Review review by Dustin K. Britt and the Sept. 12th review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/09/honest-pint-and-sweet-tea-shakespeare-get-to-the-heart-of-the-bards-king-lear/ and http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/09/a-stellar-cast-gives-a-tour-de-force-performance-in-shakespeares-epic-tragedy-king-lear/, respectively.)
Honest Pint Theatre Company and Sweet Tea Shakespeare present KING LEAR at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 and 23 and 2 p.m. Sept. 24 in Leggett Theater in Main Building, 15 E. Peace St. Raleigh, North Carolina 27604, on the campus of William Peace University; and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28-30 in J.W. Seabrook Auditorium, 1200 Murchison Rd., Fayetteville, North Carolina 28301, on the campus of Fayetteville State University.
Fayetteville: $15 ($8 students and children 6-12 years old and $13 seniors and active-duty military personnel), except children under 5 are free.
SHOW: https://www.honestpinttheatre.org/king-lear, Raleigh: https://www.facebook.com/events/1869337450052964/, and Fayetteville: http://www.sweetteashakespeare.com/event/king-lear/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/302399640237743/.
HPTC NEWS RELEASE: https://www.honestpinttheatre.org/news.
Honest Pint Theatre Company: https://www.honestpinttheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/honestpinttheatrecompany/, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9jvpkyjZ1mzZGy1t3BV8mQ.
Sweet Tea Shakespeare: http://www.sweetteashakespeare.com/, https://www.facebook.com/sweetteashakes/, http://twitter.com/sweetteashakes and https://www.youtube.com/user/SweetTeaShakespeare.
Leggett Theater (Raleigh): https://honest-pint-theatre-company.ticketleap.com/king-lear/get-there/ (directions: http://www.peace.edu/about/locations-directions/).
J.W. Seabrook Auditorium (Fayetteville): http://www.uncfsu.edu/seabrook (directions: ).
NOTE: There will be a What You Will Preshow 45 minutes prior to curtain.
King Lear (c. 1605 or 1606 tragedy): https://www.britannica.com/topic/King-Lear (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Lear (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/ (1623 First Folio Edition, courtesy The University of Virginia in Charlottesville).
Study Guide: https://www.bard.org/study-guides/king-lear-study-guide (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
William Shakespeare (English playwright and poet, 1564-1616): https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Shakespeare (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).
Jeremy Fiebig (director and associate professor of Theatre at Fayetteville State University): http://www.jeremyfiebig.com/ (official website), http://www.uncfsu.edu/arts/faculty-and-staff/jeremy-fiebig (FSU bio), and http://facebook.com/jeremyfiebig (Facebook page).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.