King Lear: the method to the madness

By on March 22, 2017

Et tu, Brute?

The Ides of March ushered in the year’s only major winter storm, dumping more than a foot of snow on Lancaster County. The white stuff blanketed the grounds around the Sharadin Bigler Theatre over the weekend as players took the stage to recount one of the most famous tales in the history of theater, but even the ghost of Caesar himself could not help Shakespeare take foot at EPAC.

“Thou think’st ‘tis much that this contentious storm / Invades us to the skin: so ‘tis to thee; / But where the greater malady is fix’d, / The lesser is scarce felt.” – King Lear

The “greater malady” for EPAC was Winter Storm Stella, which invaded the Susquehanna Valley and ultimately put a dagger in the heart — or start — of the theatre’s 2017 mainstage season by killing opening night of “King Lear” on Thursday, March 16. The “state of emergency…has halted rehearsals,” read a post on EPAC’s website as theatregoers decided when to reschedule their viewing of William Shakespeare’s tragedy based on the legendary pre-Roman King Leir of Britain.

I was among a sizable crowd who caught the show on Saturday evening.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t,” said Polonius in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and as “King Lear” looked to become EPAC’s own version of the Scottish play, with its own set of burdens and happenchance, the show must go on, and did with a full portent of madness.

The opening scene is set in the palace of the king (Edward Fernandez) who is retiring his reign and relinquishing the burden of monarchy unto the younger hands of his daughters, Goneril (Kristie Ohlinger) and Regan (Megan Riggs). Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia (Bailey Wilson), is not moved through fealty and fails to flatter her father with praise, though her admiration is true. The oldest daughters have taken suitors: Goneril the Duke of Albany (John Rohrkemper), and Regan the Duke of Cornwall (Bob Checchia). Cordelia abandons her inheritance and the kingdom, which was divided in threes is now split between the two oldest, who are set on gaining as much power as possible by whatever means necessary.

On sets the king’s madness. Abandoned by his daughters, stripped of his men, a powerless figurehead, he slips into lunacy finding compassion in his fool (Gene Ellis) and justification in the wild words of Edgar (Sean Deffley), the estranged son of the Earl of Gloucester (John Kleimo). Edgar is thick in the heart of a plot devised by Gloucester’s bastard son Edmund (Preston Schreffler) to seize power for himself. Gloucester is forcibly thrust into the struggle not knowing whether to show allegiance to his king or respect and binding duty to Cornwall. In the end he pays dearly for the former.

(Left to right) Kristie Ohlinger, Megan Riggs, and Ed Fernandez appear at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Four showings remain, on March 23, 24, and 25.

(Left to right) Kristie Ohlinger, Megan Riggs, and Ed Fernandez appear at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Four showings remain, on March 23, 24, and 25. (Photo by Suzette Wenger/LNP)

By the end of Act 2 in this three and a half hour, three-act production, violence erupts. It is bloody even in the terms of Shakespearean tragedy. And I couldn’t understand why the majority of the crowd Saturday laughed as Cornwall ripped the eyes from the bound and living Gloucester. Did I miss something? How does Cornwall’s boot-smearing of a man’s globular organs elicit humor? I wonder if some theatre goers were not satisfied with the properties, which resembled golf ball-sized spheres of white Play-Doh. Few props make up the show: here a dagger, there a sword; a stockade and a few stools make appearances. The set, created by the talented theatre veteran Mike Rhoads, is minimal, I assume, by design. The story should carry the show.

That said, at first I thought the dialogue was lost as we were hastily ushered through the first few scenes. By the second half of the first act everything seemed to, for the lack of a better, less cliché word, click. The first act ended with a culminating performance as Lear breaks down: O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven / Keep me in temper: I would not be mad!

Too late.

“King Lear” is dotted with EPAC regulars. Kleimo relies on his signature delivery to create a nervousness, which we learn is well founded. Checchia is strong and sturdy. Ohlinger, ever a feather on the stage, shows a beautiful plume always has a point. Deffley, who I will forever see as Jean-Michel in “La Cage aux Folles,” transforms once again. And Fernandez exhausted every bit of his emotion in a performance dedicated to his theatre mentors, Earle Gister and Lynn Morrow. I was most impressed by Schreffler’s cagey and caustic portrayal of Edmund; whether he had a sore throat or purposed inflection, his villainous schemes and soliloquies sent me shivers.

“King Lear” is an epic undertaking. While Shakespearean theatre seems a bit out of place on the EPAC stage as of late (following “Disney’s Lion King Jr.,” “Oliver!” and “Heathers The Musical”) the production was a welcome change of pace and a refresher on the history of theatre and the importance of classic tragedy.

EPAC’s “King Lear” is directed by practiced Shakespearean Alan Gomberg (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Sanford Meisner Theatre, 1985) who last presented the Bard at EPAC in 2010 (“Hamlet”).

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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