Ted Swetz as King Lear owns the stage in KC Actors Theatre-UMKC Theatre collaboration

Fool and Lear
Peggy Friesen-Fool, Theodore Swetz-Lear

This is the third time I’ve seen Shakespeare’s King Lear on the Spencer Theatre stage. The first, in 1991, featured Richard Bowden as Lear in a straightforward, classic production with elaborate sets and costumes. I remember that version not so much for Lear as for the other characters, notably Ted Swetz as the unfortunate Gloucester whose eyes are plucked out by Mark Robbins as the cruel Cornwall.

In the second King Lear, from 2007, I wrote that Dennis Arndt portrayed Lear with a sense of humor where, “[in] a story that’s about as serious and tragic as you can get,” Lear got most of the laughs.

In the 2017 version, a collaboration of Kansas City Actors Theatre and UMKC Theatre department, performed on the Rep’s Spencer Theater stage, Ryan Artzberger’s direction keeps Ted Swetz as Lear front and center in our thoughts, if not in every scene.

Swetz’s Lear owns the stage from the beginning, despite a bumpy start (did Swetz forget his lines or was he in character as the aging Lear?), to the bitter end. It all starts with Lear deciding to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters depending on how each expresses her love for him. The two oldest, Goneril (Heather Michele Lawler) and Regan (Amy Billroth-Maclurg) try to one-up each other. Cordelia (Chelsea Kinser), the youngest and, it turns out, her father’s favorite, refuses to play that game. This sends King Lear into paroxysms of anger that lead to a downward spiral of mental deterioration.

On a certain level, King Lear is about power and how, when the powerful grow weak, there are many who seek advantage. Although Lear’s daughters Goneril and Regan surely do their part, things might have turned out better were it not for the machinations of Gloucester’s (Mark Robbins) bastard son, Edmund (Khalif Gillett). Gillett is excellent portraying the duplicitous Edmund and is especially gleeful when divulging his plans to us, the audience, as if we were co-conspirators! (Unindicted or otherwise.)

Although the costumes are not as elaborate as in other productions of King Lear, Caroline Allander’s designs make sense when we realize that the story actually predates King Arthur. As Fool proclaims, “This prophecy Merlin shall make; for I live before his time.” It did take a bit getting used to the leggings worn by most characters (Peggy Friesen’s Fool being a notable exception) that resembled puttees worn by World War I British and American soldiers.

Sound Designer Zack Pierson produced a crackerjack thunderstorm that nearly shook us from our seats. (The accompanying fog may need tweaking: It left the actors and audience alike engulfed in a London-style pea soup.) Especially effective, though, was Pierson’s searing mosquito sound that rose in pitch in time with Lear’s soliloquies to palpably define his journey to madness.

In the end, Swetz’s Lear is about humanity. When Lear jokes, sort of, to blinded Gloucester, “Ay, every inch a king,” there were a few titters but no laughs. By this point we were all too engulfed in Lear’s tragedy to make light of it. Rather than have us make fun of Lear’s sad insanity, Ted Swetz reminds us that any one of us could be King Lear.

King Lear
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Ryan Artzberger
At: Spencer Theatre/Kansas City Actors Theatre
Ends: October 22

King Lear – Theater Review by Frank C. Siraguso