George Bernard Shaw once said, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than ‘Lear.’” Doing justice to Shakespeare’s words is no easy feat. Elements Theatre Company deftly portrays King Lear’s tragic life with spectacular pageantry and suspenseful swordplay befitting the grand ruler.
The almost three-hour-long story begins with the aging King Lear of Britain (Brad Lussier) abdicating from his throne. Intending to divide the kingdom between his three daughters, he publicly puts forth a challenge: the daughter who convinces him that she loves him the most will get the largest share.
As his eldest daughter Goneril, N. Kate Shannon is the first to poetically proclaim her love for King Lear. Upping the ante, Stephanie Haig is even more gratuitous as Regan. Playing Cordelia, Sarah Hale is earnest and truthful in her reply, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth: I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”
Quick to temper, Lear not only banishes his favorite daughter for her inability to flatter him, but also his trusted advisor Kent for defending her. Christopher Kanaga is a steadfast Kent, effortlessly changing his voice to a cockney accent to conceal his character’s identity, so he can continue to serve his beloved king.
As Lear, Lussier expresses a bounty of emotions fluently, as the former ruler slowly loses all that is dear to him, including his mind — going from a proud, quick-tempered king to a nearly mad, grief-stricken invalid.
Lear’s sons-in-law Cornwall (Peter McKendree) and Albany (Kyle Norman) rule the newly divided kingdom. However, Lear’s daughters quickly tire of the aged king’s antics and his 100 knights, along with one outspoken soothsayer Fool, laudably played by Rachel McKendree. Feeling disrespected and betrayed, Lear flees running into a wild storm on the heath.
In a subplot, Edmund (Andy Talen), the opportunistic bastard child of the Earl of Gloucester, decides to get the land he desires, he must take it from his legitimate half-brother Edgar (Luke Reed), by claiming Edgar is plotting against their father. Peter Haig portrays the kindly Gloucester who, unlike Lear, is not quick to believe the ills spoken about his son. Talen is a very funny Edmund, comically delighting in his evil plan during his many asides. When Edgar goes into hiding as a madman, Reed magnificently transform from a royal into an unrecognizable creature, leaping about on all fours.
Director Sister Danielle Dwyer does not overlook a detail or subtext. The grand portrayal of “Lear” exquisitely unfolds outside, in the atrium of The Community of Jesus’ Church of the Transfiguration. With a 12-foot- high wall (or more) of impressive greenery serving as the backdrop, the brick floor is mostly bare, save for a large stone altar, where most of the action takes place.
As always, Elements’ fine acting is only rivaled by the intricate and authentic-looking costumes. Even in the summer heat, the actors are draped in ornamental furs, befitting their station, with oversized leather belting keeping them in place.
The energetic musical accompaniment, which includes tribal drums and fiddles, heightens the production’s intensity. The realistic sword fights are the best I have seen on stage, with the imposing metal swords quickly flashing in the light.
This year marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, and Elements has been celebrating for a year, starting with last summer’s extravagant “Merchant of Venice” and ending with a profound “King Lear.”
On opening night, tragedy almost struck, with rain steadily falling on the stage for much of the first act. But as the dry audience, seated under a surrounding enclosure, watched and marveled, the actors didn’t miss a beat or an iamb, performing seamlessly as the storm added a realistic touch to the story’s own powerfully scripted tempest.
At Elements Theatre Company, Rock Harbor, Orleans
Through Aug. 21
Information and reservations: 508-240-2400