Engaging Showmanship from TRIST’s King Lear

TRIST LearThis is a golden age of immediate gratification, of binging on serial dramas and Ben & Jerry’s. We can fulfill our every need with ease. So why would we leave the comfort of our pajamas and couches for the theater? Go to Theatre 82 at the Artist Exchange this weekend and find out! Bob Colonna and the cast of King Lear will remind you of the cathartic power of participating in communal theater. From theater enthusiasts to the Shakespearean-obsessed among us, TRIST’s Lear will not disappoint.

Imagining the story of King Lear populated with sideshow performers from another era is a pleasant diversion from the modernized Shakespearean dramas so popular today. While there is much to be said for keeping Shakespeare’s work relevant and accessible, modern Shakespeare, unless executed expertly, can be a tired pop culture fad in a J Crew three-piece suit. It’s similar to kale or plaid — it’s a bit overdone. So I would like to thank Bob Colonna and his cast for reminding us what Shakespeare was all about: the joy and catharsis of shared storytelling, indiscriminate of class, gender or age.

Colonna’s choice of sideshow setting and snake oil inferences effectively enhanced Lear’s predictably maudlin and depressing plot. It highlighted the dark humor so easily overlooked in tragedy. The King’s struggle with mortality, power, relevancy and all the familial baggage that comes with such themes is made palatable by the informality of the early American West.

“…I wanted to create a King Lear that was as much fun as it was tragic,” Colonna said.

In fact, the Medicine Show setting was a clever concept that not only provided joy, but also kept the audience engaged in the world of the play. Any of the predictably informal or uncomfortable moments inherent to a black box production were washed away. The club music wafting in from next door was actually a comforting balance for the somber subject matter.

Conversely, one of the weaker moments of the production took us away from the Wild West saloons. We returned from intermission to Edmund and Gloucester communicating through text message. It was a successfully subtle reminder to turn your phones off, but dull to watch beyond a moment. An audience cannot share the distance between a person and their phone and it smacks of ineffective millennial pandering.

That being said, the cast can be proud of a job well done. Bill Oakes as the Ringmaster King Lear is excellent. It’s a daunting role that has been explored by greats such as Olivier, McKellen and, more recently, Anthony Hopkins. Oakes’ rich voice and vulnerability lend depth to the high-pressure role. Mark Carter, as his Fool, was energetic and amusing. The two are expertly matched for banter and tomfoolery. Audrey Crawley’s Goneril was appropriately shrill, Anika Poshkus’ Cordelia was genuinely sweet, and Lauren Annicelli made smart, engaging choices with her portrayal of Regan. 

The secondary plot of Gloucester and Edmund in many ways mirrors the tragedy of Lear and his daughters. However, David Kane effectively brings balance by highlighting more humor in the text. He portrays Edmund as a villain amused by his own wickedness and the gullibility of those he manipulates. Kane provides the audience with some much-needed comic relief even during his inevitable demise.

Geoff White is an effective fortune-telling Gloucester, complete with a velvet turban and dark eye makeup. It’s a clever irony, the seer who cannot see the obvious. He had a particularly strong moment where he delivered a monologue as a premonition, and I wanted more.

Lori Lee Wallace’s performance as Edgar would be well served by the editing of a few accents and costumes. They were a distraction from her very engaging vulnerability and humor, while Grace Chenot’s Kent is witty and endearing.

In truth, the real success of this production does not lie in the production values or climactic performances of notable illustrious careers. The true joy of this production came from the passion so clearly evident in this group of enthusiasts. Their depth of understanding and commitment to the text was refreshing and infectious. If you’re looking for a casual and energetic night of Shakespeare, check out TRIST’s King Lear.

TRIST presents King Lear through Apr 6 at 82 Rolfe Square in Cranston, Thu through Sat evenings at 8pm. Tickets may be reserved at 401-490-9475

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