Encore Michigan

John Lepard triumphs as ‘King Lear’ along with rest of the MSF players

Review July 16, 2019 David Kiley

JACKSON, Mich.–One thing about being a King. You know the fall is going to come. It’s going to happen sooner, if not later. A few Kings decide they can;t stomach the suspense, though, and walk themselves to the cliff.

Shakespeare’s King Lear has always been a fascinating story that has beguiled many an actor and director to take it on. It is one of those roles that great actors who still do stage work into their 70s will do if they do Shakespeare. Think Anthony Hopkins, Charles Laughton, Paul Scofield, Lawrence Olivier in 1983, Nigel Hawthorne in 1999. And in a gender reversal, Glenda Jackson this year on Broadway at age 83. It’s a role g iven to acting royalty.

George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.”

In the Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production, which opened this past weekend here, John Lepard–a fixture around Michigan theater, executive director of The Williamston Theatre and a veteran of film and TV–wears the crown. Lepard, I am sure is not in his 70s, but he wears enough age as an actor to carry off a terrific Lear.

Lear is no ordinary King, clinging to power. Indeed, he has a bit of Henry II in him, a bit of George III, but also a bit of George Washington who famously left office after two terms, though he could have stayed in power longer.

Lear tells the tale of a king who bequeaths his power and land to two of his three daughters, after they declare their love for him in an extremely obsequious manner. The third daughter gets nothing, because she won’t flatter him in the same manner. When he feels disrespected by the two daughters who now have his wealth and power, he becomes furious to the point of madness. He eventually, then, becomes tenderly reconciled to his third daughter, Cordelia, just before tragedy strikes her…and then the king himself.

The lead role requires an actor who can play a range–from regality to the confused retired King and then the almost child-like nutty king, and then the utterly broken King. Lepard is an inspired piece of casting as he more than knows how to fill every bucket of Lear’s transformation.

Fortunately, he is also surrounded by a superb cast and ensemble. Alan Ball is Gloucester and takes his punishment on stage with great aplomb, right down to having both eyes gouged out in a fit of very good stagecraft that had the audience squirming. Jacob Mundell as Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund and Ian Geers as his legitimate older brother both animate their characters beautifully. That goes as well for Oswald, steward to Lear’s daughter Goneril, played terrifically by Eric Eilersen. All three actors lift the action around Lear and Gloucester, infuse their parts with a bit of modernity and fabulous energy that speaks to how well they have studied their parts.

The miserable conniving daughters are played by Vanessa Sawson as Goneril, and Claire Jolliffe as Regan. Sawson brings a luminous presence to the stage despite her, well, unhealthy thoughts about Dad. These two are not the ones you leave to cook Thanksgiving dinner with all the family in for the holiday. But wait til the end, and you’ll see for yourself, if you have never seen Lear, how it turns out for them.

David Blixt, a likely future Lear himself, is Earl of Kent who does not get any parts of his face gouged out, but he is a steady balance to Ball’s Gloucester. Martel Manning plays a commanding Albany, while Justin Montgomery and Michael Morrow fill out an overall dynamic cast as France and Cornwall respectively.

Angela Weber Miller’s set provides a very versatile space for Iron Age Britannia, while light design by Kelcie Nutile was handled very well changing times of days and transitioning to the ultimate bloody death scenes. Lots of good, fun sword play and fighting directed by David Blixt.

Really, there is something for everyone, and not a few scenes will remind Godfather fans of the Coppola classic film. That’s how easily Lear travels in modern storytelling.

Lepard’s Lear is a triumph, but so is the entire production. Bravo!

Week of 11/18/2019

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