Story: Lear, the elderly king of Britain, has decided to retire and to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Goneril, the eldest, and middle daughter Regan are overly effusive in expressing their love for Lear, but young Cordelia simply says that she dutifully loves him as a daughter should love a father. Angered by Cordelia’s low-key approach, Lear disinherits her. When his faithful lord Kent tries to reason with him, Lear banishes Kent from the kingdom.
Gloucester, an earl of Britain, is tricked by his illegitimate son Edmund into believing that his son Edgar is a traitor and plotting to overthrow him. Edgar goes into exile and disguises himself as a madman. Meanwhile, rejected arrogantly by both Goneril and Regan as a doddering and impotent old man, Lear begins his own descent into madness, accompanied by his Fool and Kent, who is disguised as a new servant of Lear’s named Caius.
Edmund accuses Gloucester of aiding the disgraced Lear and has Gloucester’s eyes gouged out. The blinded Gloucester is aided by the masquerading Edgar. Lear and Cordelia are ordered by Edmund to be executed, while the recently widowed Regan vies for Edmund’s affections with Goneril, who views her own husband as a coward. Goneril poisons Regan, then commits suicide when she learns that Edmund has been killed in battle. The dying Edmund recants his execution order, but Lear arrives carrying the limp body of Cordelia and dies alongside her.
Highlights: Playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed that “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.” Based on the legend of a pre-Roman Celtic king, it’s an epic work by Shakespeare that reflects human nature on a grand scale.
In a pared-down version that deletes the husbands of Goneril and Regan as well as several lesser characters, St. Louis Actors’ Studio artistic director Milton Zoth has crafted a splendid gem of a production currently being performed at the Gaslight Theater, thanks to a judiciously selected cast and some nifty technical work.
Other Info: There’s magic at hand on the diminutive Gaslight Theater stage, thanks to scenic designer Patrick Huber. With a pair of hidden bookend stairs that allow actors to descend to their exits unobtrusively and by utilizing aisles on either side of the tiny theater, Huber gives Zoth the flexibility he needs to direct traffic as well as action in the two-act tragedy.
Additionally, a large moon-shaped prop at the back of center stage becomes a canvas on which various settings and emblems set the tone of particular scenes, such as Lear’s wailing on the moors. Huber is given credit for the technical design, and also serves as lighting designer, offering focused illumination of various strengths to accentuate the action.
The fight choreography designed by Cameron Ulrich is first-rate, swashbuckling derring-do, and Teresa Doggett’s sumptuous costumes reflect the haughty demeanor of Lear’s two eldest daughters as well as the ragtag disguises of Edgar and the bizarre attire of The Fool. Lisa Beke adds well-chosen props and Robin Weatherall’s sound design reflects the suitably dark storms that rage on the moors alongside Lear.
At nearly three hours, this truncated version of King Lear is still a considerable undertaking, but Zoth keeps the pace steady and the action clear and structured. The cast is most impressive, led by John Contini in the title role. After more than a year off recovering from serious health problems, Contini emerges without missing a beat. He has the imposing look of an iron-fisted ruler and the booming, direct voice to personify the anger of an autocrat, but also beautifully depicts Lear’s slow descent into disarray and his heart-broken disappearance into futility.
As The Fool, Bobby Miller is nearly unrecognizable behind his snow-white hair and disheveled appearance, suitably capturing the jester’s cruel and nihilistic impulses as much as his loyalty and devotion to his king.
Eric Dean White is excellent as the well-meaning Earl of Kent, steadily supporting Lear even in the latter’s troubled times. Justin Ivan Brown and Rusty Gunther offer superb contrast as Gloucester’s devoted son Edgar and the scheming, malevolent Edmund, respectively. The former hops around the stage like a deranged cricket when he masquerades as a madman, while the latter shows his forte with swordplay in Edmund’s fateful fight.
Meghan Maguire and Missy Heinemann are the epitome of calculated disdain as Goneril and Regan, respectively, handling those nefarious roles with considerable aplomb. Jessica Laney offers a smooth portrayal of the innately good Cordelia, while Actors’ Studio producing director William Roth does well as the ill-fated Gloucester. David Wassilak and Paul Cooper are solid in smaller roles that support the plot.
Occasionally, the players rush through their lines a bit too quickly, which can heighten confusion following the intricate weaving of The Bard’s congested tale. Still, this version of King Lear is consistently engrossing and a marvel of economy that demonstrates how less can be more.
Play: King Lear
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: June 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb