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Shakespeare’s "King Lear"

APT’s ‘King Lear’ offers dark commentary on our times

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the child who grows into the weapon of her parents’ destruction.

That’s the scenario driving the narrative of Shakespeare’s King Lear, which recently opened on American Players Theatre’s “Up the Hill” stage in Spring Green. The play is among the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies: The vitriol and violence spring from what should be the most nurturing of relationships — that of father and daughter. But Lear’s family bonds are deeply vengeful, wrought from old wounds that have festered into cruel manifestations that are not unfamiliar to modern society.

The play begins as King Lear (APT veteran Jonathan Smoots at his bombastic best) announces his retirement and intention to divide his country among his three daughters. The size and location of each fiefdom will be determined by how ably each expresses her love for the aging monarch.

Goneril (Laura Rook) and Regan (Kelsey Brennan) fawn shamelessly for their pieces of the kingdom. But youngest daughter Cordelia (Melisa Pereyra) refuses to engage in such artifice, eloquently stating that her love is no more nor less than what is appropriate between a daughter and her father.

In a thundering rebuke, Lear banishes Cordelia into the arms of the King of France (Ninos Baba), leaving her a noble bride with neither dowry nor title to her name. In terms of familial betrayal, this is just the first of many and sets the tone for tragedies to come.

Both Goneril and Regan discover their payout comes at a larger price than expected. Lear continues cavorting as if he were still king, traveling with a band of 100 knights and expecting his daughters to provide his gaggle with succor and a place to stay whenever the mood strikes him.

Given Lear’s growing dementia and unreasonable demands, the sisters prove less loving than their rhetoric suggested. They plot to rid themselves of their now burdensome parent, setting into motion a series of events that unwinds to a tragic conclusion.

Director William Brown attempts to up the ante of the already frightening scenario by setting his play in contemporary times, with sharp business suits and haute couture taking the place of noble robes. Shakespeare purists may find this a bit unsettling, perhaps even trivializing, but the time shift well serves the play’s universal themes of anarchy and greed.

Kevin Depinet’s simple set — steps and a grass-covered riser — proves remarkably facile and serves as ironic commentary on the concept of a level playing field. The set is put to especially good use during lighting designer Michael A. Peterson’s storm sequence.

As Lear, Smoots brings the necessary balance of bravado and vulnerability to a role writ large by his magnificent voice. His monarch is a character more to be pitied than feared.

The cast as a whole is strong, but a special nod goes to Cristina Panfilio’s Fool. Clad in a leather jacket, black skinny jeans and a fedora, Panfilio presents an interesting counterpoint to the formality of the other characters, even if her interpretation struggles against some of the complex Shakespearean language.

Helped along on harmonica by Tim Gittings, who plays Lear’s chief of staff, Panfilio at one point strums out a nicely played blues arrangement of some of Shakespeare’s saltier dialogue. It’s a bit of a contrivance, to be sure, but it also offers some nice variation and treatment to the Bard’s often heavy prose.

In the end, the updating of this Lear to contemporary times offers commentary on our current political conditions. In both eras, it seems, there is plenty of arrogance, greed and blame to go around.

On stage

King Lear continues at American Players Theatre, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green, through Sept. 30. For tickets, call: 608-588-2361.

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