So said Scott Palmer, artistic director of Hillsboro’s Bag & Baggage Productions, in a pre-show introduction to Lear, a stripped-down, corseted-up retelling of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Palmer also had this word of warning: “This ain’t your grandmother’s King Lear.”
He wasn’t kidding. In Palmer’s adaptation, there’s no mention of Edgar, Edmund, Kent or Gloucester. Five actors handle the whole story, which focuses on Lear’s complicated love for his three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia. This production drops the political for the personal, and the results are often stunning. The costumes are steampunk Elizabethan, and the gorgeous (and sometimes needlessly distracting) lighting design is a scrim-lover’s wet dream.
Reimagining Shakespeare is, of course, nothing new. Ever heard of the ninja-action-figure version of Macbeth? There’s also an Othello as told by your sassy gay friend and a Hamlet in which everyone speaks Klingon. Starry-eyed directors sometimes adapt Shakespeare just for adaptation’s sake, which is, more often than not, a disservice to the text. But, given that King Lear is a sprawling and complicated mess-terpiece, trimming it down to its essentials makes good sense.
In this case, it also makes great theater. As Lear, the king who divides his land and lucre between the conniving Regan and Goneril while disowning the kindhearted Cordelia, Kevin Connell is a powerful presence. He convincingly inhabits Lear’s descent into madness, as well as his very real regrets. Still, his intensity could be tempered slightly. When you set the volume to 11 from the outset, there’s little room for further emoting, and the more subtle moments get drowned out in the sound and fury.
Lear is the star here, but Jessi Walters, Rebecca Ridenour and Stephanie Leppert are lovely as the fruit of Lear’s loins, and Benjamin Farmer plays Perillus, Lear’s man (and a bit of a stand-in for the male roles cropped from the script), to perfection. There’s even an inspired bit of double casting: Leppert plays not only Cordelia but the Fool, to spooky, poignant and heartbreaking effect.
In Act 5, as the bodies start to pile up in the true fashion of a Shakespearean tragedy, Lear is alive but barely. “All’s cheerless, dark and deadly,” he says. True. But not in the suburbs.
SEE IT: Lear is at the Venetian Theatre, 253 E Main St., Hillsboro, 345-9590. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm Sundays through March 23. $20-$30.