What I learned. . .

Lear is tough.  No two ways about it.  And it’s really tough on a two-and-half-weeks-till-tech rehearsal schedule; all the more so when you spend at least half of the first two days of rehearsal down with some sort of mysterious illness.  I’d gotten a cold just before leaving Salt Lake City, where I’d just opened a production of You Can’t Take It With You at Pioneer Theatre Company; had a stop-over in Storrs, Connecticut for design meetings, auditions, and casting of an upcoming Macbeth at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, and arrived in Orlando with my ears so seriously plugged from the flying and the climate changes that it took weeks for them to return to normal.  Felt like I was shouting at my cast the entire time we rehearsed because I couldn’t really hear myself.

But Jim Helsinger and I had been circling the runway for a couple of years in search of the right project and the right piece of timing for me to direct at his Shakespeare festival, and having directed the play once before and seen numerous performances of other productions, the learning curve was not as steep as it might have been once I regained my equilibrium. Although I go down hard when I go down, I’m pretty resilient and bounce back quickly.

But it was another lesson in surrounding yourself with the right people.  I was fortunate to have Jonathan Epstein in the title role; he’d played Lear at Shakespeare & Co., and brought passion and formidable language skills to the work.  The supporting cast was a great mix of local and out-of-town actors; I got to work for the first time with Eric Hissom, Jim Ireland, David Mann, and Eric Zivot; was reunited with Steven Patterson from Oregon Shakes days, and was introduced to Anne Hering, Catherine Stork, and Brittany Morgan who made an elegant, formidable trio of sisters. Cast members familiar with the festival’s schedule knew to leap right in, make bold choices, and then pull back, trim, refine, and get more specific with each rehearsal.

Plus, Jim delivered me into the hands of an excellent design team. I thought the combination of Bob Phillips (festival veteran and a resident designer for “Sesame Street”) and Lisa Zinni, another experienced festival designer who traveled the country checking in on touring productions of Rent, would certainly bring a rich and interesting combination of sensibilities to the production --  the Cookie Monster meets Mark the film-maker somewhere on the heath -- which they did. And the moment I got into tech rehearsals with Eric Heiden, the lighting designer, I knew I was in the best of hands.  If Eric wasn’t a mind reader, he certainly seemed to be so; he knew the space, understood its capabilities, needed minimal communication, and delivered seamless, effortless, gorgeous work.

Something that started off very shakily evolved into a success story for the festival.  It was their first King Lear, and by the end of the run -- thanks to Governor Jeb Bush’s rescinding of ticket-scalping restrictions in the state of Florida -- people were clamoring for tickets outside the theatre, willing to pay inflated prices in order to see the production.  King Lear. In Orlando, Florida.  I wonder what Mickey and Minnie thought.

King Lear


Shakespeare Theater

January, 2007

Catherine Stork, Steven Jones,

Jonathan Epstein, Liam Scahill, Anne Hering

“When Jonathan Epstein’s King Lear sits on his throne, his Fool (Jim Ireland) nestles at his feet like an overgrown puppy.  Lear ruffles his Fool’s hair as he would a devoted grandchild.  When the Fool counsels him, Lear listens.

This poignant connection between king and courtier, father figure and son figure, companions and friends, is at the heart of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival’s King Lear, Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedy.  Just as Lear shows that bond with his jester, so too, do the actors in this production connect with their audience.  The result if a Lear that hits home in the most elemental of ways.

The festival was right to shy away from Lear for most of its 17-year history: This play, as Epstein has pointed out, calls for more than a few good actors, and it also demands an audience mature enough to hear what it has to say.  But now the festival has built that company.  If you can judge by its reaction on opening night, the festival’s audience is ready for whatever horror – and whatever compassion – Shakespeare could devise.

“It’s a grand, bleak story, told starkly in the festival’s Margeson Theater by a cast in muted, timeless costumes of browns, burgundies, and blacks.  The set consists of a series of bare wooden platforms, all of it overshadowed by three wooden arches that call to mind no less an image than that of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified.

“Director Paul Barnes, an experienced hand at the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival and elsewhere, has led his 18-member ensemble to get to the heart of Lear’s story, and the outcome is a period-dress production that feels new.  Such actors as Eric Hissom (as the duplicitous Edmund) and Steven Patterson (as the blunt Kent) are speaking Shakespearean English, of course, but the speak it so matter-of-factly that it sounds modern and colloquial.  There’s no mistaking what they and their colleagues are saying; better yet, there’s no mistaking what they mean.

“Barnes also renders the horror of Lear’s story so plainly that there is no ducking its punch.  The gore in Shakespeare’s drama can seem almost comical, like a two-bit production of the lesser drama Titus Andronicus or a stage rendition of Evil Dead 2.  At the Shakespeare Festival, there’s no mistaking the bloody fate of Gloucester, Lear’s counterpart in age, and the blows that befall other characters certainly result in blood.  But the telling is so matter-of-fact that it averts melodrama: The blood you see appears real.

“There’s nothing kingly about Epstein’s Lear: He’s just a man, and so are all his cohorts in this plain-spoken production.  No wonder an absolute quiet among the audience greets this Lear at play’s end.  With a story this plain, all you can do is think – and feel.”

     Elizabeth Maupin

     Orlando Sentinel

“There is a sense we have of King Lear, Shakespeare’s most riveting and poignant tragedy.  We know the terrain will be emotionally rugged and Lear’s fate agonizingly brutal.  Our hearts ache when Lear learns too late that the child he spurned, Cordelia, is the only one of his three daughters who love him.  We picture the desolation, both physical and mental, that Lear enters into, accompanied only by his Fool, a man so much wiser than the king he serves.  It is a pitiful sight.  Indeed, it is all about the emotion.

“And to those who understand the drama in advance, the emotion is delivered at the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival’s production, directed by Paul Barnes.  

“Certainly, the bleak landscape cultivated by pride is palpable from the beginning, thanks to Bob Phillips’ formalistic setting and Eric Heiden’s gloomy lighting.  A wooden platform grows out of craggy rocks and detritus of the earth.  It sweeps up toward a barren landscape.  At the end of the platform are three towering woden gates at different heights.  The symbolism is unmistable: They are the three crosses of sacrifice.

“As Lear, Jonathan Epstein is, simply, marvelous.  He delivers a powerful, heart-wrenching portrayal of Lear’s descent into “nothing.”  When Lear challenges the coming storm to “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” we see him moving closer to the cliff of his own mental and emotional decay.  Dressed in rags and with a crown of weeds, he sinks closer to earthly elements, where he is inexorably heading.

“The acting here is top-notch.  The visuals and sound are, as always, splendid.  Barnes does what he must to propel the story into something less than three hours.”

     Pam Harbaugh

     Florida Today

“The Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival has tackled a hard-hitting drama in William Shakespeare’s King Lear.”  “This is the first time King Lear has ever been produced by an AEA professional theatre group in Central Florida.  It is an intense, hard-driven, emotional play which tests the capabilities of the cast; each masters his or her role superbly.”

“Jonathan Epstein as King Lear is mesmerizing.  His emotions run from exhilarated to devastated.  His face and manner descries his emotions as he lives through the phases of his life including love and duty, friendship and betrayal, leadership and loyalty, authority and chaos, destiny, redemption, the terrors of aging and the overwhelming inevitability of a life nearing its end.  We weep with him, despair with him, sympathize with him and hate him at times.

“His death scene with his dead daughter Cordelia is emotional heart-rending.”

     Carole Arthurs

     Winter Park-Maitland Sentinel

“We’re all used to seeing guys standing at the intersections around the Orlando Arena, scalping tickets to Magic games.  And I know lots of people who would be the first to take the scalpers up on their offers when the performer in question was Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones.  But scalped tickets for King Lear?  Orlando has really hit the big time.

“It seems that all of the closing weekend performances of Orlando Shakespeare’s King Lear were sold out, and there were would-be audience members clamoring for seats.  So there were patrons outside the Lowndes Shakespeare Center this past weekend scalping $20 tickets for 50 bucks.

“Apparently there were people who took them up on the offer.  I can report first-hand that every seat was filled when I went back to see the show a second time Saturday night.

“Some of the festival staff and board members were worried that King Lear wouldn’t sell well in Orlando: It’s a tragedy many times over, and it’s so sad (and bloody) that it can be hard to watch.  

“But when a play is good, apparently audiences figure it out.  Cindy Bosselmann, the festival’s marketing and public relations director, says they sold 82 percent of the available tickets for Lear during the production’s 3 1/2 –week run.

“It’s nice to see that local audiences don’t always want fluff.  I knew that, deep down, but back-up data is always good.

“Congratulations, Shakefest!”

     Elizabeth Maupin

     Orlando Sentinel