Providence's celebrated Trinity Repertory Company opens its 49th season with a powerful production of Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear.
This staging of Lear is a joint effort between Trinity Rep and The Dallas Theater Center (DTC). DTC's Artistic Director, Kevin Moriarty (familiar to Rhode Island audiences through his previous direction of Shakespeare's work at Trinity), helms this production, and several of DTC's resident actors take the stage in Providence as well.
The aging Lear (played by Trinity veteran Brian McEleney) announces that he will divide his kingdom between his three daughters, with the choicest lands given to the child who loves him best. Lear's eldest daughters Goneril (Christie Vela) and Regan (Angela Brazil) pander to the king's vanity and wax ever-more poetic in their attempts to ingratiate themselves in their father's favor and gain power as queens in their own right.
Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth), Lear's youngest and favorite child, answers simply and plainly, without adopting her sisters' hyperbole. Her lack of honeyed words drives the king into a rage, and he disinherits Cordelia, setting his family – and his kingdom – on a path to betrayal, despair and catastrophe. Honesty is pitted against flattery, youth against age, parent against child, and oppositions that begin on an individual level soon spread to touch all of Lear's subjects at each corner of his land.
McEleney is the ideal lead, delivering Lear's quick-changing emotional state with natural ease. As Lear, McEleney's grief over his children is palpable, his rage terrifying, and his bearing regal, even in his heartbreaking portrayal of madness. Scenes with Lear's Fool (played by the delightful Stephen Berenson) allow a glimpse at the playful side of the king. McEleney and Berenson have a strong rapport, and their early lighthearted bantering works to establish the Fool's fierce loyalty to his monarch as the play progresses.
Phyllis Kay plays the faithful Earl of Gloucester with a great charm and an innate strength, even when her parental heartache seems unbearable and the most vicious betrayal leaves her with grievous scars. Gloucester faces the severest punishment for her loyalty to Lear, one of the more difficult scenes to witness in the play, and Kay expresses both the horror of the moment and the nobility at her character's core.
DTC actors Lee Trull and Steven Michael Walters play Gloucester's two sons, the illegitimate Edmund and lawful heir Edgar. Trull is delightfully corrupt and seamlessly transitions from scheming, sneering monologues to the most "sincere" and heart-felt interactions with the very people he manipulates and betrays. Walters ably balances the earnest and resourceful side of Edgar with his disguised persona, the crazed "Poor Tom."
Christie Vela makes even the most difficult of Shakespeare's lines seem natural and effortless, and her portrayal of Goneril is especially steely. The always delightful FrEd Sullivan, Jr. plays Goneril's steward Oswald with the perfect mix of comedy and cunning. DTC's Hassan El-Amin shines as the Earl of Kent and easily adopts the part of Caius, a servant to the king. He demonstrates some of the smoother stage fighting in the production and, like Vela, sounds entirely at ease with the language of Shakespeare's text.
Michael McGarty created a truly remarkable set for this production. The characters' stormy interactions and fractured relationships are reflected in the stage design as McGarty's vision complements, but never overshadows, the storytelling. Seth Reiser's lighting design aids in transitions, sharpens focus, and subtly frames the narrative with shadows looming eerily over pivotal scenes.