Raye Birk ready for 'King Lear' challenges

Raye Birk and company members in King Lear.
Raye Birk and company members in King Lear.
Photo by Petronella Ytsma
Over his long career, actor Raye Birk has taken on a number of major roles, including turns as several of Shakespeare's key characters.

"I got a chance to do a Hamlet when I was a younger man, and to do the Scottish tragedy when I was younger," Birk says.

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Birk currently stars as the title character in King Lear at Park Square Theatre. The massive role is often considered a career topper for male actors. This is Birk's second turn as the mad king, having played Lear 11 years ago at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. The setting was quite different -- an 1,100-seat outdoor theater and a company made up mainly of M.F.A. students.

"Fortunately, here we have an intimate setting, and I don't have to worry about raccoons crossing the stage," he says.

The 69-year-old actor has been able to draw from that experience for the new interpretation. And while there is a three-week rehearsal period, Birk's work actually started months ago. 

"[Director] Peter Moore and I have talked about doing this for a couple of years," he says. "We came up with the concept a little more than a year ago, and then went to work on a cutting of the text. I've spent a lot of time thinking about it, and letting the text get back into the old brain."

Among the acting challenges to the role is the "breadth of where he starts and where he finishes; the ups and downs, mostly downs. It is a story about a man who loses everything. What is that experience of a person who has so much and loses it all?"

Working on a role like Lear becomes all encompassing. "My whole day is built around the fact of what I have to do when I go to work. You are expected to shout a lot and get angry a lot for the role. I've been marshaling my energy, watching what I eat, and trying to get enough rest, which helps the voice to recover," Birk says.

For the Park Square production, Moore has chosen a 1930s gangster-vibe for the piece. 

"What I like about it is that this lens makes it very accessible to Americans. I had always thought about doing a corporate Lear. We know the mythology of the American gangster. That fits in so many ways. It's about family and power and control. It's about brutality and cruelty. It gave us a fresh idea for this play that might enliven things for people who know it and be a good, understandable introduction for those who don't know the play," Birk says. 

Bringing that logically to the stage is a case of careful cutting. "We haven't done any rewriting. There are three things -- transportation, communication, and weaponry -- that are apt to be jarring. For the most part, by cutting we eliminate things that would be jarring," Birk says. 

Making sure not to tamper with the meaning -- "It's about a kingpin's rise and fall," Birk notes -- is vital for the production.

"This play has been tampered with so much. In the 1700s, it was rewritten with a happy ending," Birk says. "That's especially true in our culture. Somehow we got it into our minds that we are supposed to be happy all the time. That it is our right. We think that something is wrong because we are not happy, but that's part of being alive, too."


King Lear
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
Previews through Thursday; opens Friday through November 11
$38-$58; previews $25
For information, call 651.291.7005 or visit online
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