Don’t be ‘Lear’y

Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park (OSP) ends its summer season on a satisfying note with a spirited production of King Lear, in which Hal Kohlman gives a commanding performance in the title role. One wouldn’t expect Kohlman’s Lear to go gentle into that good night, and he doesn’t.

Director Kathryn McGill staged the play with elegant simplicity on an almost-bare stage. The set OSP used this summer is gone, and only a lone pine tree and a few shrubs remain at the edge of the concrete “O.”

Rick Reeves’ scenic design consists of a small platform center stage where a sturdy wooden chair is placed for some scenes. Aaron Mooney’s lighting and Patrick Warrington’s sound design strongly enhance the production.

Every stage director and designer in town should see this production. It’s a clinic on how to stage a play to great effect with minimal props.

The King Lear character is based on a pre-Roman Celtic king, and Robert Pittenridge’s somber costumes are otherworldly in purples, blacks and burgundies.

In this austere setting, Lear rolls out a canvas map on the floor and tries to divide his kingdom evenly between his three daughters. But in one of the earliest cases of no good deed going unpunished, problems ensue before he can finish the job and furl the map for filing.

He asks his daughters how much they love him, and Goneril (the fine understudy Renee Lawrence at the reviewed performance) and Regan (the reliable Erin Hicks-Cheek) take the bait, effusively expressing affection for their loving, if slightly addled, father. Later, Goneril and Regan — “unnatural hags,” Lear calls them — make the witches down the street in Wicked look like a couple of Pollyannas.

But his youngest, Cordelia (Julia Devine), says she loves her father no more or no less than a daughter should. This youthful, if brutal, honesty results in the downfall of Lear, his daughters and their husbands and about everyone associated with the king’s court.

In a parallel plot, Edmund (Jason Burkhart), the conniving bastard son of Gloucester (Robert E. McGill), schemes to estrange his half-brother, Edgar (Rob Gallavan), from their father and his estate.

It’s a pleasure to see Kohlman play Lear, one of the great tragic roles. He rails, wails and blusters to the end. Kohlman is completely believable when he dies, seemingly of a burst heart, next to the dead Cordelia. His Lear suffers more from poor choices than the defects of old age.

The production features a fine supporting cast. David Fletcher Hall is the Earl of Kent, and Shaun Kilburn plays the Fool, who speaks truth to power like nobody’s business. Rick Cheek (Albany) and Sam Bearer (Cornwall) are the daughters’ husbands who have the misfortune of falling into a dysfunctional family before anyone knew what that was.

But it’s McGill’s direction and Kohlman’s performance that make this production the success that it is. It’s not an overwhelming, extraordinary experience, but it is the highlight of OSP’s season.

Larry Laneer

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