A Brilliant Ensemble for Lear

Alchemist Theatre's first Shakespeare is really, really good.

Jul. 14, 2013
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As always, there is a very intense clustering of Shakespeare productions this summer. The fourth show by Shakesepare that I'd seen in 8 days, the Alchemist Theatre's staging of King Lear ended up being my favorite to open all month. 

Th stage is a maze of sticks that are cleverly lit with careful intensity by Jason Fassl's AntiShadows LLC. The intimate studio theatre of the Alchemist comes alive with the ancient drama. Director Leda Hoffman runs a very well-executed and extremely well-balanced production featuring an excellent cast. Usually the phrase " excellent cast," includes a mixture of some really good actors in some excellent roles, some of whom are putting in some excellent performances. It may or may not also include a few people who are not quite so talented or quite so inspired, but the overall impression of the cast as a whole is that it's an excellent group of people who have enough going on that they're able to cover for the less than inspired human dramatic elements. Here that isn't the case. Everyone here seems to be really, really good and everyone here with more than a few lines is putting in a really, really good performance. 

Time and again in the course of the performance, I found myself taking am entail step back from what was going on, looking at the the stage and realized that .  . . not only is there not a single actor in any given scene that annoys me, but they're all people I like putting in solid performances. I can't stress how difficult this is to maintain with Shakespeare. Director Leda Hoffman has done an exceedingly good job of balancing things here.

Of course, picking out individual outstanding performances is impossible in a production like this, but  here are some quick basic impressions:

Milwaukee theatre veteran Bo Johnson carries a very weighty depth in the title role of King Lear. Not content to let the surface emotions carry the character, he delivers a performance with a great deal of attention to subtleties in the emotional vicissitudes of one of Shakespeare's more complex characters. I'm far more familiar with Johnson in comic roles, which makes this soulfully serious dramatic turn feel very, very dramatic. Kind of breathtaking, actually.

At the beginning of the drama, Lear is looking to split up his kingdom between his three daughters. Libby Amato is strikingly poised as Lear's eldest daughter Goneril. She's got a delicate balance of compassion and ambition that so many of the characters here are afflicted with. 

Anna Figlesthaler is respectably fiery in the role of Lear's second daughter Regan. In so many productions I've seen Regan and Goneril come across as simple villains. Figlesthaler carries a really interesting emotional complexity to the stage in the role of Regan that feels very resonant.

The youngest daughter is played by Grace DeWolff in one of her sweetest turns on stage. The character is kind of written to be sweet and all-loving and all-forgiving, which can be a dreadful thing to bring to the stage, but DeWolff tempers the sweetness with a very sharp wit animating it from within. In the studio theatre, we feel the warmth of DeWolff's compassion and it feels really good. 

Like Bo Johnson, I so often associate Dylan Bolin with comedy. Here he shows a capacity for serious drama that adds its own distinct kind of gravitas to the proceedings. Nice to see him doing work like this. 

In recent productions, I seem to recall seeing the Fool who follows Lear on his downward spiral being played by women, which was particularly well-executed in a recent UWM production if memory serves. A young woman playing the wise fool was really, really fascinating. Here that fool is played by David Flores. Flores is absolutely brilliant in roles that require a bit of compassion. Here that compassion is mixed with blistering honesty in a way that suits Flores quite well. 

Amidst a very young cast, Michael Pocaro aids the ensemble on the side of experience in a performance as Golucester. I've been seeing Pocaro perform for well over 15 years going back to his days with UWM's Professional Theatre Training Program. His commitment to emotional honesty onstage continues here in what could be seen as one of the more difficult roles in the ensemble. It's not an easy thing to go through what this character does onstage and keep the performance from going way over the top. Pocaro manages the physical stresses that the character encounters with a thoughtful temperament. 

Matt Wickey plays the villain Edmund in a way that seems to openly embrace the character's ambition as the central source of the villainy. Yeah, Edmund's got a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire theater, but Wickey goes deeper than that to deliver a character that doesn't quite need as much sinister and subtle green light as Fassl bathes him in. Wickey looks good in the character cast in green, though.

Jason WIll and Ken Williams come across as stylishly dueling leads in places. As Cornwall, Will is comfortable enough cloaking himself in authority that it ends up getting paired with this really magnetic kind of confidence that makes it far more memorable than Cornwall usually is in a production. WIlliams is very charismatic as Albany. There's a canny heroism about his performance that adds an inertly aggressive weight to an ensemble that has this kind of balance. 

One of the more satisfying aspects of this show for me might have been seeing Tim Linn in the role of Edgar. Linn has been relegated to the edges of so many really, really good productions of Shakespeare--including, most notably a few production with the American Players Theatre in Spring Green. Here he's playing the ragged wanderer with something more to his past. Linn carries the character's transformation beautifully. There's a deep and deeply wild energy about Linn in the role that speaks to the very heart and soul of the drama. His voice and poise ride out the tragic end of the  play in a deeply resonant way.

Alchemist Theatre's production of King Lear runs through July 27th at the Alchmeist's space on  2569 South South Kinnickinnic Avenue in Bay View. For ticket reservations, visit www.alchemisttheatre.com. A far more concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.


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