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Review: 'King Lear' gets the royal treatment from Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale

SouthFlorida.com correspondent

The timelessness, universality and interpretive malleability of William Shakespeare’s great works are illustrated yet again in Thinking Cap Theatre’s new production of the towering tragedy “King Lear.”

Centuries before Eugene O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” before Tracy Letts won his Pulitzer for “August: Osage County,” Shakespeare mapped the terrain of a vicious dysfunctional family. Among the many facets of the human condition artistic director Nicole Stodard explores in her interpretation of “King Lear,” a key one is this: What happens when a once-great mind is besieged by dementia?

The words in the play at Fort Lauderdale’s intimate Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts are Shakespeare’s, but the adaptation and vision in this contemporary production are Stodard’s. The set by Alyiece Moretto-Watkins and lighting by Joel De Sousa are dreamlike, with sheer curtains doused in pale blue light separating the central playing area from the shadowy realms where Lear’s devious daughters do much of their dirty work. The effect is that we’re watching a haunting “King Lear” unspooling in the old man’s disintegrating, buffeted mind.

The story, you may recall, centers on the aged King Lear (Peter Wayne Galman), who has decided to step away from the politics and stresses of governance, dividing his kingdom among his daughters, Goneril (Jessica Farr), Regan (Casey Dressler) and his favorite, Cordelia (Bree-Anna Obst). But first, the narcissist in Lear — think of our tweeting president — demands each daughter expound upon her love for him.

Goneril and Regan basically say the sun, the moon and the stars have nothing on their adored father and king. But Cordelia won’t go there.

She wonders why Goneril would love their father more than her husband, the Duke of Albany (Joshua Josey), why Regan would adore Lear more than her husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Carlos Alayeto). She states that her love is no more and no less than a loyal daughter owes a father. That sends Daddy Dearest into a rage in which he promptly disinherits Cordelia and marries her off to the king of France.

Lear’s hunger for adulation swiftly backfires. His plan to alternate time with Goneril and Regan — both of whom see their now-powerless father as a foolish old man — goes south. First, Goneril kicks Lear and his 100 rowdy knights to the curb. Then, Regan does the same.

At the same time, Edmund (Zack Myers), the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester (Jim Gibbons), puts deadly plots against his father and his brother, Edgar (Seth Trucks), into motion while trying to sleep his way to the top via affairs with both of Lear’s cruel daughters.

Nearing the end of his life, the maddened, suffering Lear has only his Fool (Obst again) and the disguised Earl of Kent (Steve Carroll), a loyal friend Lear angrily banished, to help him keep body and soul, if not his mind, together.

The violence in “King Lear,” enough to fill several “Game of Thrones” episodes, is artfully done in Thinking Cap’s production. When Alayeto’s ruthless Cornwall, egged on by Dressler’s cool Regan, gouges out Gloucester’s eyes, Gibbons sits with his back to the audience as the lighting turns red. Then, Dressler “bandages” the blinded man’s bleeding eye sockets with her husband’s crimson tie. Similarly, when Myers’ Edmund wants to convince his father of Edgar’s treachery, he turns away to slice his hand, then wraps it in a red handkerchief.

Stodard, also responsible for the play’s costumes and sound design, suggests a hospital setting, with some of the actors (Carey Hart’s Oswell, Obst’s Fool) dressed in nurse uniforms and Lear sporting pajamas or a robe with a monogrammed “L.” Sometimes, the regular thumping of a heart monitor flares to life. At other times, under the musical direction of Patrick Watkins, violinist David Guevara underscores or bridges the action, as do Beatles songs that really do seem to comment on this particular Shakespearean tragedy, including “All You Need Is Love,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “When I’m 64,” “Nowhere Man” and “Fool on the Hill.”

In playing Lear, Galman gets one of an older actor’s bucket list roles, and he makes the most of it. At first fiery, even preening, he seems to devolve before our eyes until, at the end, his ruined mind shows on his slack face.

Obst creates distinct, effective characters in playing the loyal Cordelia and the playful, accented, truth-telling Fool. Choreographer and musical performance director Kevin Black has devised a short dance for Lear and Cordelia near the end of the play — father on one side of the sheer curtain, daughter on the other — that Galman and Obst deliver to haunting effect.

Myers, rousing and sly and razor-sharp with the language, is a magnetically villainous Edmund. The way he uses Goneril and Regan, and both sisters’ poisonous attraction to him, would benefit from being suggested even sooner.

Farr and Dressler, formidable women in black fishnet stockings, effectively create Lear’s amoral, sharper-than-a-serpent’s tooth daughters. Alayeto radiates danger as Cornwall, while Josey is more of a cipher as Albany. Trucks’ Edgar, Gibbons’ Gloucester and Carroll’s Kent navigate Shakespeare’s challenging language and rhyming couplets well.

Overall, the effect of Thinking Cap’s “King Lear” is one of surface coolness and subterranean passion. Shakespeare’s work isn’t done often enough by South Florida’s professional companies, so the chance to look at “Lear” afresh, to ponder its enduring themes and contemporary relevance, is worth taking.

“King Lear” is running through Nov. 18 at the Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $40. To order, call 954-610-7263 or go to VanguardArts.org.

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