— This may not be the best show to choose for a Father’s Day outing.
But the Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s first-rate production of King Lear, which opened the 2015 edition of the annual event at TCU, would make a good choice for most any other day.
You might look at this presentation as a nicely wrapped gift for its star, David Coffee, who takes the title role, in appreciation for the outstanding work he has done in this series and on stages across the Metroplex over a long and fruitful career. Pardon the pun, but this role is often seen as a crowning achievement for both the Bard and the actor playing the character. Actors do not aspire to play Lear. They earn the right to that role. And Coffee has certainly done that.
Lear is the sort of role that Coffee has been largely denied in the past because, ironically, he is so good in comic roles. When he does land a dramatic part, he typically knocks it out of the park. But he is so sought after for comedies (one of the oldest adages in theater holds that “dying is easy; comedy is hard”) that it has been difficult for him to make room for weightier fare.
So seeing his name on the marquee for this enormously tragic drama is a welcome sight for anyone who knows Coffee’s work. Even with the high expectations we all bring to the experience, Coffee does not disappoint in the least in this production which is crisply and tersely directed by TCU drama professor T.J. Walsh.
Coffee’s Lear rises and falls in just the right moments and just the right ways. He smoothly transitions the aging monarch with a troublesome set of daughters through a series of shifting personas — a proud king, a befuddled outcast, a wandering madman and, finally, a devastated father with the scales lifted from his eyes. His performance is imposing, crafty and heartbreaking in equal measures.
As is typical with the productions in this series, the supporting cast rises to the occasion admirably. There is not a weak link in this blood-soaked tale of court intrigue, familial misunderstandings and power-hungry treachery.
One example of the strong work across the cast is Blake Hackler’s portrayal of Lear’s fool. It is one of those oddly written parts filled with songs and jokes that probably made a lot more sense in Shakespeare’s day than now. But Hackler sells the part verbally and physically and makes us really hate the fact that he is not going to be around for the second act.
All of the various royals, husbands, daughters, soldiers and servants do solid work. Taking and running with some of the juicier parts are Montgomery Sutton, (as the villainous bastard, Edmund), Richard Haratine (Kent), Chamblee Ferguson (Gloucester) and Bradley Gosnell (Edgar).
Lear’s daughters are played with regal authority by Sarah Rutan (Regan), Lydia Mackay (Goneril) and Delaney Milbourn (Cordelia).
Walsh’s direction is extremely lean and mean overall. The show is played without accents on what is essentially a bare stage. Everything is done pretty much by the book, with no effort make to fix things that were never broken. This is Lear as Shakespeare wrote it, with very little embellishment or ornamentation.
Some of the technical aspects of the production, however, work better than others.
The costumes by Aaron Patrick DeClerk are outstanding. The use of music and sound effects by sound designer Toby Jaguar Algya works extremely well in many places, but drowns out the dialog in other spots. The lighting design by Michael Skinner tries to do some interesting things with stabbing shafts of lights. It is a creative approach but, unfortunately, it does not work. There actors play in shadows far too often.
But, on the whole, this is straight-ahead, no-frills telling of this tale that works beautifully. Best of all, it showcases one of our finest actors in a role he richly deserves.
Through June 28
Trinity Shakespeare Festival
Texas Christian University
2800 S. University
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Wednesday, Friday, June 25, June 27 and June 28; 2:30 p.m. Sunday