The Lear Project
Press Review

Production breathes new life into ‘Lear’

By Scott Dalton - The Cape Codder

Good theater often provokes one of two reactions: it entertains, or it prompts thought. Rare is the production that does both. With “The Lear Project,” the Harwich Winter Theatre and Theatre LILA have created that most rare of alchemies. At its heart, this is Shakespeare’s “Lear,” with all the tragedy and sorrow of the original text. But it is equally director Andrea Arden Reese’s story, speaking through Shakespeare in an adaptation that at once complements the Bard’s work, while also staking out vigorous and exciting new ground. Arden Reese’s adaptation strikes all males from the cast, repopulating it entirely with women.

But these are not females taking on male roles. They use the same lines but they are wholly feminine. This creates intriguing plot parallels as well as adding to the horror of filial betrayal. While it is terrible for daughters to systematically plot the destruction of their father, is it not somehow even more unnatural for them to act in the same manner toward their mother? Even those who have long relegated “Lear” to a bad memory from high school English classes will have no difficulty understanding and following this production.

Lear has three daughters, and moves early to divide her kingdom equally. Regan and Gonneril are effusive in their praise of their mother, but solitary Cordelia speaks plainly and honestly, and is immediately condemned for her perceived ingratitude. Too late, Lear realizes her error, even as her two favored daughters systematically chip away at her power and sanity. As Lear, Florence Phillips captures the tragic transformation from regal stateliness to bewildered madness.

Phillips starts off looking every part a queen; she commands the stage with her voice and presence, and we are left with no doubt of her ability to rule. But even early on, her vain weakness for false praise and an inability to admit when she is wrong lay the foundation for her ruin. Phillips’ Lear disintegrates in every way over the course of the production; as her mind dissolves, so too does she become physically and even vocally undone, and the actor carries us believably through every stage.

All is not gloom, however. The characters of Kent (Susan Schuld) and Lear’s Fool (Keelia Skye O’Donnell) play two sides of the same coin as both struggle to enlighten their lady and master, one through reason, the other through dark comedy. Schuld brings an intensity to Kent that equals that of Phillips, and O’Donnell marries physical prowess with the only character who can tell the queen the truth to her face without risking her wrath. Phillips’ descent into madness is reciprocated in her evil daughters’ ascent to power. Anna Heick’s Gonneril has a fiery edge that will not be contained, providing an interesting foil to Dakota Shepard’s softer, but no less evil, Regan. Heick and Shepard revel in their roles, pulling at the threads that both bind and support their mother, first delicately, and then with ruthless abandon.

Their story is echoed and amplified by the subplot of sisters Ederne (Jenn Silva) and Edina (Jessica Lanius), who are daughters to the loyal and trustworthy Gloucester (Karen McPherson). McPherson is an able reflection of Phillips’ Lear, but with less guile and more warmth. If anything, her story is therefore all the more tragic. Silva’s turn as Ederne boosts the secondary storyline into a tale that is as compelling and horrifying as that of the ungrateful spawn of Lear. In Silva’s hands, Ederne becomes a rabid spider, deftly spinning out a web of hate and deception that threatens all within its reach. Here is a character that is not evil by default or by birth, but by unholy choice.

Unlike the progeny of Lear, however, there is an element of hope to this tale. As Edina, Lanius shines with faithfulness, even as she struggles to understand how two sisters born of the same woman could be so different. The acting in the production (which includes a wonderful ensemble that takes on the role of a Greek chorus) is accentuated by superior technical values. Michael Reese’s set design draws the audience in with three metal grids that provide a sense of depth and perspective that far exceeds the theater’s thrust stage. A single 10-foot disk at dead center stage provides an ever-changing backdrop against which color and light reflect a host of different atmospheres. The simple set and Reese’s stark lighting design also reflect an Asian influence that pervades the production and is reflected in everything from Robin McLaughlin’s costume design to Lanius’ fight choreography, which has a distinct martial arts element to it. Even Arden Reese’s musical choices hint at this, sounding as if they could have come from one of Akira Kurosawa’s epic films.

This comparison rings true for reasons beyond the soundtrack. Kurosawa reinvented the Lear story in his film, “Ran.” Arden Reese, as with the late Japanese director, is challenging audiences to experience old tales in new ways. With “Lear,” Arden Reese hits the mark, seeing the heart of Shakespeare and making the story something all her own.

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