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Bedlam experiments with “King Lear” in Bristol


Shakespeare aficionados intimately familiar with King Lear, and perhaps tired of traditionally-staged productions of the long, weighty play, are sure to be intrigued by New York-based Bedlam Theatre Company’s 90-minute version, on view through Feb. 16 at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

However, those less well-acquainted with what is commonly considered the Bard’s greatest tragedy are advised to brush up on its main plotline and, particularly, its many different characters before venturing out for this unusual theatrical event.

Proffering only about half of the full text (just scenes in which Lear is present), the drama is performed by a cast of six female actors – all playing multiple roles, with the exception of Zuzanna Szadkowski who portrays Lear throughout. Because they are all women, and often employ only subtle changes of jackets, headpieces, or footwear to costume themselves as different characters, without fresh-in-mind knowledge of the story, it can sometimes be hard to follow who’s who and what’s what.

Difficult to warm up to, the disjointed production – which marks the first time BRT has ever presented a show by another theater company – is nonetheless commendable in the opportunity it provides female actors to play monumental roles historically reserved for men.

Not that that’s a new idea. In 1899 Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet, and as recently as last year Glenda Jackson played the title role in “King Lear” on Broadway. Considering that in Shakespeare’s time all roles were played by men, what’s so strange about now having those same roles all played by women, particularly in our current climate of gender fluidity?

Yet when director Eric Tucker originally conceived the idea for this experimental treatment of the play, it was to make it more of an ensemble work, rather than a showcase for the actor playing Lear. And it’s indeed in the ensemble scenes that Tucker’s production is most entertaining.

Eliminating the sub-plots, this version focuses on the tragic results of Lear’s decision to divide his kingdom between his two eldest daughters and to exile Cordelia, his third and only truly devoted daughter, because of her choice of honesty over flattery when describing her love for him.

Initially, the production zips along, with fast-paced dialogue snappily delivered in a contemporary conversational fashion in step with Lisa Zinni’s quirky costumes, and the bare sets designed by Jason Simms in that intentionally unrealistic style that reveals the whole stage space, blending the entire “offstage” area with the “onstage.”

The young cast – especially Therese Barbato as Cordelia and the Fool – are all adroit actors. Yet Szadkowski brings a full-throttle energy to an off-putting interpretation of Lear. Her heavy-set, loud-mouthed king wears a too-tight purple knit dress under an enormous fur coat, and sports a big, old-lady pocketbook.

As the monarch sarcastically spews self-delighting verbal abuse, one feels Szadkowski is channeling the TV sitcom character Roseanne. Unfortunately, about an hour into the show the pace deadens, the humor disappears, the visual aesthetic turns to emptiness, and we are left with long, slow speeches by Lear, who we’ve completely lost interest in and feel nothing for.

Conceptually, the inventive production remains engaging, but it loses dramatic momentum and emotional impact.

Later this year, Bedlam will produce the second half of this Lear experiment, presenting the story from the perspective of some of the other characters. But you will have to go to New York to see that. In the meantime, kudos to BRT for serving up some adventurous theater-going fare.

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