There hadn't been a tremendous amount of hype preceding the opening of Star Bar's ambitious production of King Lear. Perhaps the producers wanted to hedge their bets. But whatever expectations could have been thrown around by pre-production publicity, this excellent cast would have risen to meet the demands of eager audiences.
It isn't often that so many things go so overwhelmingly right for a production. To say that the stars were in alignment for this venture downplays the hard work from director Paul Mathewson and a tremendous cast, all at the top of their game. Mathewson elicits stellar performances by the fistful, rarely letting a moment play on stage that is not marked by first-rate acting and sustained intensity.
The production remains focused on the acting, using an extended stage to contain the action without attempting to fill the space with elaborate sets. There are only a handful of set pieces -- a throne in one scene, a table and chairs in another, stocks later on. The pieces are consistently rough, the raw grain of the wood left untouched. Certain pieces are stained, however, and something seems wrong when the stocks are better looking than the King's throne. Despite the consistency of the rough pieces, they don't seem to fit any stylistic vision, and the ornate costumes belie the primitive set construction.
What is not negotiable on stage at the Lon Cheney Theater is the quality of performances from a 23-person cast. King Lear is often seen as a vehicle for Lear. Mathewson is dynamic and commanding in the role, raining a storm of regret and heartbreak throughout the play, seizing the stage whenever he is on it, but leaving room for the rest of the cast to have their moments to shine.
The strength of the company is what elevates this production beyond a typical presentation of Lear, and beyond anything I've seen from Star Bar Players in the last year and a half. Virtuoso performances keep the audience enraptured as the tale unfolds with power and clarity. John Barber is an excellent Kent, grounding the characters as they tread into a dangerous no man's land of madness and fantasy. Julian Bucknall is equally strong as Gloucester, and his gruesome blinding and vulnerability provide some of the play's most powerful moments. Rod Garrison has never been better in his interpretation of Edgar, turning in a stunningly versatile performance head and shoulders above any of his recent work. His turn as Poor Tom, haunted by the foul fiend, gives the play its deepest emotional texture.
Mark Hennessy clearly relishes the chance to play the juicy role of the villain Edmund, and he captivates the audience with his insight into the web of intrigue he spins. Craig Richardson is a delightfully creepy Cornwall, filling his performance with spooky stares and eerie expressions, giving depth to an otherwise underapreciated elegy to evil. Amy Brooks as Goneril and Stephanie Brunson as Regan also elevate the roles of Lear's daughters, turning lesser roles into the kind of parts any actress would kill to play.
If you have any worries about comprehending the fast moving plot, it may be worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with the story before attending. Mathewson refuses to dumb down any aspect of the production, and this standard bearer of excellence is not to be missed.