'King Lear': Screaming at the storm

Raye Birk, going mad, in King Lear.
Raye Birk, going mad, in King Lear.
Photo by Petronella Ytsma
You can make all sorts of jokes about "Gloucester's sleeping with the fishes" in the face of Park Square Theatre's Prohibition-era-informed King Lear. Yet the façade of gangsters and guns doesn't interfere with what sits beneath: one of drama's greatest roles in a deep and penetrating look at unexpected consequences.

The Shakespeare DNA of the production is well built, if suffering from a lack of nuance. It has a fantastic foundation in Raye Birk, who pours his considerable talent into the title role, bringing out the rage and madness that sit at the core of his character. Several other actors also put in strong performances, but the quality of the overall production is uneven, stripping this King Lear of an emotional and intellectual impact that is just out of reach.

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In a nutshell, Lear has a kingdom and three daughters. He plans to split it three ways, but when beloved Cordelia doesn't profess her daughterly love as strong as he wishes, Lear banishes her. The kingdom, instead, is split in two -- to a pair of characters who could give Lady Macbeth a lesson or two at a conniving convention. The world all goes pear shaped from there for Lear and the land, with brewing conflicts and a former leader slipping quickly into madness.

Physically, Birk may not be as imposing as some actors, but the depth of his performance means he dominates the stage as the king, regardless of his status: as ruler, as "retired" king, and then as an essentially deposed madman, wandering through a storm. No matter what role he is playing, Birk can bring out the soul -- fragile, often broken -- that is hiding within. Lear is no different. Even in the loudest moments, Birk makes this character vulnerable and human.

Birk gets strong support from a number of his fellow players, including Stephen D'Ambrose as Gloucester, who is crushed by the machinations of his illegitimate son, Edmund (played with great energy and villainy by Jim Lichtscheidl); Gary Briggle as the Fool, here envisioned as a Depression-era entertainer who is quick with a joke or song; and Stacia Rice and Jennifer Blagen as the sisters whose secret jealousies eventually unravel the kingdom.

The gangster vibe works at times -- Gloucester's mutilation in particular is a bloody, visceral moment -- but mainly just sits there to provide the actors a chance to move around in pretty period costumes. Some of the performances in the company also aren't up to snuff compared to the leads, making for uneven energy onstage. Peter Moore's production moves briskly, which gives short shrift to some of the characters. Lear, thankfully, stays at the center.


King Lear
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul
Through November 11
$38-$58; previews $25
For information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online.
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