Review of Shakespeare’s King Lear at Montford Park

I have two new items to add to the list of charms attendant upon outdoor theatre: wood-chippers and fireworks. I would have been satisfied with the usual rapacious swarm of mosquitoes — that’s how easy I am to please. But no: on opening night of King Lear at Montford Park, the foolish king cursed his daughter to the sputtering drone of bark being shredded, and later as he bewailed her death, fireworks boomed and crackled patriotically in the near distance. And it all made sense in a weird kind of way: for is Lear not shredding the branches of his own family tree? And is his repentance not cause for grim and sparkly celebration?

Okay, I tried. The truth is, it’s frustrating to have to strain to hear your favorite Shakespeare lines over the noise of patriotic bombast and maniacal landscaping. But fans of The Montford Park Players will know that anything can happen under the homely stars of Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. So come prepared: bring bug-spray, a chair to sit on, an age-appropriate beverage of your choice and a willingness to roll with it.

King Lear is not the bard’s cheeriest play. It’s basically the story of an aging king who divides his kingdom among his three daughters on the basis of how shamelessly they’re willing to flatter him. Which raises certain questions about the king’s character from the get-go. His motive, as far as I can tell, is the naive wish to retire in the opulent style of power without the humble substance of responsibility. Apparently such people exist. In any event, one daughter refuses, thus distinguishing herself as seriously lacking in political savvy. The king banishes her, along with the rest of his most loyal retinue, in a fit of narcissistic rage, and the rest of the play amounts to bringing the wheel of fortune full circle, and producing a few corpses along the way.   

Under Dr. Robert Allwyn White’s direction, Montford Park’s somewhat abbreviated version of the play captures the essence of the story, and provides some familiar Players, as well as some fresh faces, a chance to shine. In the famously difficult title role, Martin Cohn is impressive. He has a commanding — one could well say “regal” — presence that fills the stage, and his resonant voice easily carries throughout the amphitheatre. What’s more, he actually knows what he’s saying, why he’s saying it and wherefore he’s saying it in these particular words. In short, he handles the language beautifully as he tracks the ill-starred king’s journey from hubris, to madness to contrition.

The versatile Dan Dutterer is also well-cast as the Fool (and other roles). While his antics may at times verge into clowning, they help clarify the sense behind the nonsense, and certainly provide a source of pure amusement for the younger audience members. Dutterer’s wiry physique harbors a remarkable physical energy, and his face and voice are wonderfully expressive. And most impressive of all, the man knows how to stay in the scene without stealing it.

I was also impressed by the actors playing the two evil sisters. As Goneril, Kirstin Daniel is saucy and lascivious, and as Regan, Mandy Phillips possesses a sharpness and clarity of intention that make her a force to be reckoned with. As the noble Kent, David Mycoff shows his usual mastery of Shakespearean language — one never misses a word he says. I was quite moved by the early scene in which Kent confronts Lear, at risk of his own life, in order to save the king from his own folly. Mycoff and Cohn go head to head in a way only two very old friends can go, and the result is (of course) tragic.

A new face for me was Patrick Hackney, who plays Edmond, one of Shakespeare’s more memorable villains — up there with Richard III and Iago. Hackney took a while to warm up, but once he got going, he brought the role into vivid focus. Moreover, he was the only cast member who spoke with a British accent. One would be tempted to call this an odd choice, were it not for the fact that Hackney’s accent is so consistent and so correct as to make one wonder whether he might not in fact be British. Unfortunately, the playbill fails to enlighten on this point.

The performance I saw showed evidence of the usual opening night jitters — lines garbled or dropped, movements a bit tentative, entrances and exits less than smooth, and (yes) supposed corpses swatting at mosquitoes. But the Players have a three-week run ahead, and it stands to reason that they’ll get their legs under them. If the production doesn’t quite show them at their best, it’s largely due to the staging, which tends to obscure what it should clarify. While it’s true that there’s only so much a director can do with the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, there’s no reason to have two characters bid each other farewell and then leave the stage through the same exit.     

I’m not privy to the production budget for a show at Montford, but I imagine it’s about what the average American household might spend on groceries in a week. And yet, once again, Elizabeth Shields manages to design and dress the set in a way that both serves the show and distinguishes it from previous Montford productions. In other aspects as well, Montford continues to impress by how much it can do with so little. As some of the local professional theatres have begun to place their bets more and more on glitz and high production values, Montford continues to do what it does best, without pretense. There’s something to be said for sincere artistic effort — without hope of compensation. The acting is rarely so flawless that one doesn’t see the human being behind the role, but that’s exactly the perspective that makes Montford productions so real, so down to earth, and so enjoyable.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare, presented by The Montford Park Players. Director: Dr. Robert Allwyn White. Stage Manger: Beth Mayo. Lighting Designer: Angie Wilt. Technical Director: Kenn Kirby. Scenic Designer: Elizabeth Shields. Costume Designer: Victoria Smith. Featuring: Tony Antinora, Dwight Chiles, Martin Cohn, Kirstin Daniel, Dan Dutterer, Karl Ehrsam, Murphy Funkhauser, Esha Grover, Patrick Hackney, David Mycoff, Mandy Phillips, Kent Smith, Chris Stanton, Mike Vaniman, Jason Williams.

King Lear plays June 18 – July 11, Fridays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. (weather permitting), Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre, Montford Park, Asheville. Admission free, donations encouraged. Concessions for sale before the show and during intermission.     

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