A Post-Apocalyptic King Lear

I've seen so many Shakespeare productions in my life, and I keep coming back for more because the stories are timeless, the language is powerful and beautiful, and the characters are unforgettable. Red Monkey Theater Group's latest effort, a new version of King Lear, delivers a fresh, mesmerizing hook as it sets the tale in a post-apocalyptic world.

According to the program notes, the tragedy takes place in "the Ruins of the Southeastern United States."  A painted flat depicts a ravished cityscape in the horizon, the lights flicker and the audio soundtrack warbles like a radio losing its signal as the play begins. The audience instantly recognizes the tropes of the popular doomsday scenario, popularized by Mad Max, Escape from New York, and countless other post-armageddon stories.  Such a thematic starting point adds a sense of novelty to the genre and a unique spin to William Shakespeare's oft-told narrative.

The director, Tal Aviezer, doesn't overplay the post-apocalyptic metaphor, but rather lets the adventure unfold through the deft handling of the text by his accomplished cast. Automatically we see Lear as already on the path toward madness, a victim of the machinations of his scheming daughters and other subordinates, but also a victim of the circumstances of a world gone to hell and whatever other natural afflictions (age, dementia, paranoia, etc.) may have started the process of warping his mind.

Lawrence J. Reina does an exceptional job in the title role. He rises to the challenge of showing the hints of dynamism that this man must have had in his younger days to draw all those around him to his authority and weave a functioning social order in the face of crisis. He then shows equal aplomb in depicting Lear's vulnerability that leads to his downfall. The spiral toward his mental and emotional collapse is completely believable. I felt a poignant connection with his portrayal of the once-regal leader reduced to a dazed old man, reminding me of my own grandfather during his final days in the grip of Alzheimer's Disease, unsure of his surroundings, not recognizing the loved ones around him.

The production's post-apocalyptic framework also adds some welcome subtext to other characters.  The conniving Goneril and the sadistic Regan, played with extraordinary conviction by Julie Thaxter-Gourlay and Holland Renton, are now products of a dark, nihilistic, survival-of-the-fittest future. Their cruel ambitions, their wicked, self-centered desires, contrast dramatically with the noble actions of others who manage to stand morally firm in an environment that does not kindly reward such courage. Examples of such wonderful characters abound -- Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia, played by the excellent Chelsea Niven; the "Duke" of Albany, splendidly depicted by David Wetter, refusing to stand by and watch any further injustice; and the tragic Gloucester, brought to life magnificently by Elliott Robinson.

This production has some non-traditional, gender-flipping casting. The part of the Fool is played by Sandra Ehrlich, and while I've seen the role played by a woman before, the post-apocalyptic plot device adds additional depth to the casting choice, making me wonder if the Fool was just as mad as Lear and some of the rest, possibly the king's wife or mistress or other kin in a time of normalcy, now drifted into insanity due to a world fallen to madness itself.  The role of the heroic Kent is given to the capable hands of Elizabeth Mialaret, who brings energy, strength, and honor to Lear's former confidant. When I saw that the role of Edgar had been switched to "Emma," I feared how that might play out later with the scenes of the "Poor Tom" disguise and the duel with the bastard Edmund (played to perfection by Matt Gordon), but I shouldn't have worried, because C.C. Kellogg did an exceptional job.

The rest of the cast delivered the goods as well -- Charlie Scatamacchia as a deliciously wicked Cornwall, David Ryan as a fearsome Burgundy, and Louis Lavoie pulling double duty as both the compassionate "King of France" and the dastardly Oswald.

It's a marvelous production that I hope more people have a chance to see as it enters its final weekend.  For tickets, visit RedMonkeyTheater.org