My enjoyment of Richmond Shakespeare's King Lear started the moment I sat down. I was soon approached by Thomas Cunningham in his guise as The Fool and was chatted up nicely. I think I was a boring subject but he soon moved on to other much more entertaining victims and provided a personalized and charming introduction to the play for many patrons. As per usual, RichShakes makes even waiting for their shows to start something interesting.
The production itself was fabulous with a boldness and sense of gravitas that begins and ends with Alan Sader's performance as the title character. His voice, his composure, even his regally shaggy mane of gray hair made his royal stature unmistakeable and his eventual descent into madness palpable. I loved the way director James Alexander Bond staged the first scene with the king and his daughters, Lear's directive for flattery seeming almost off-hand and casual. Oh, but what a tragic series of events springs from this simple command. Jai Goodman is quietly heart-breaking as Cordelia and her performance provides a tender frame to this otherwise dastardly mean-spirited play (and I mean that as praise), her scenes at the beginning and the end providing a window into a more sedate and loving time in Lear's reign.
Adrian Rieder was impressive as Edmund but there was also a bit more swagger in his performance where I might have wanted more anger or even hurt (at being so unfairly diminished by his father). Still, there's no denying the agility with which he navigates the moments he bounces between Goneril and Regan -- simply delicious. A still greater challenge falls to Charley Raintree whose Edgar starts noble and clueless, falls into pantomiming madness with incredible zeal, and then emerges noble once more but with a worldliness and an anger that gives his character even more depth than Lear. Raintree's performance really captivated me.
Rounding out a truly outstanding trio of dark, passionate, and handsome types was Ryan Bechard as Cornwall. Could this really be the same actor who played the washed-up alcoholic from RTP’s “Devil Boys?” I never would have believed it, his smoldering power-lust was like a physical force at times, propelling the emotion of many scenes and apparently inspiring near-constant passion from Regan.
In the midst of so much excellent stuff going on, it is easy to pass over other great performances, which would include Cunningham as The Fool (that he can be so hammy and erudite at the same time is really a gift) and Foster Solomon as Kent. It's true that in a few years, Solomon himself could be a darn good Lear (he's already been a damn good Hamlet) but he does fine work as Lear's most loyal and therefore most crestfallen acolyte. Agustin Correro projected just the right level of disdain and sometimes comic bitchiness as Oswald; I wonder when we’ll see Mr. Correro in a lead role that will display the full range of his gifts.
I found myself liking the mean daughters somewhat less than I expected to, particularly since I’m a fan of both Kerry McGee and Sarah Jamillah Johnson. Certainly, they both were satisfactorily callous to their father, oftentimes getting downright nasty. But I found Regan’s pawing of her husband, sometimes in the middle of his lines, distracting. Perhaps this was Mr. Bond’s choice and maybe it’s more evident in the text then a realize but it was a bit odd on stage. I also found myself confused at times whether their rebuke of their father was out of political gamesmanship, familial hurt (for being overlooked for the favorite Cordelia, in parallel to the Edgar story), or just ingrained badness. It could have been all three but their motivations at specific points as the drama unfolded were sometimes obscure to me.
I found myself noticing the lights at Agecroft (lighting design was by Maja White) more than I had in the past, which is mostly a good thing. The actors were all illuminated well without distracting shadows (a relief after some recent frustration at the Firehouse) and the light-play that enlivened the storm was first-rate. There was at least one time when I was confused about a reference in the play to it being night, however, because it seemed awfully bright. That’s probably a tough balance in an outdoor venue.
The Cairns / Hoskins teamwork on the costumes resulted in some exceptional outfits. The king and the members of his court were finely decked out, of course, but I found myself noticing small things, too, like how Poor Tom’s rags were barely there and yet securely covered everything needed to keep the show family friendly. Also, the garb Jai Goodman wore as a peasant helping Gloucester along the path was nicely simple.
I’m sure there’s plenty else I could say but this is a production that is rich with gifts and I can’t really enumerate them effectively. So I’ll end where I began, with Mr. Sader and Mr. Bond. As a director, Bond has once again shown he has a firm grasp of the oeuvre and can make Shakespeare vital and entertaining. And, if for no other reason, this is a show that’s worth seeing for Sader.