“King Lear,” which opened Friday night at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center, might just be Shakespeare’s most profound play.
It is a meditation on death, identity and the randomness of the world.
One day, we can be a king, the next, a madman wandering in the wilderness.
And when Shakespeare gets profound — as opposed to just being amazingly brilliant — the production has to keep up with the world he has created or else we will all be lost in its depths.
This “King Lear” never loses us, never backs down from its story and never fails to entertain us.
Kudos to everyone involved. This is a triumphant production for director Alan Gomberg and his stellar cast.
Ed Fernandez gives a brilliant performance as Lear, the elderly king of ancient Britain. He is heartbreaking, arrogant and funny as the old man who decides to give his kingdom away to his three daughters.
A cranky old man filled with rage, fear and humor, Fernandez conveys all the layers of this king as he comes to the end if his life.
Lear demands to know how much each daughter loves him and his eldest daughter Goneril (Kristie Ohlinger) and his middle daughter Regan (Megan Riggs) rave on about their love. Both are wicked, conniving women and Ohlinger and Riggs are quite good at conveying their disdain for their father without overdoing it. They are the delicious chill at the center of the play.
But youngest daughter, Cordelia (Bailey Wilson, who does a lovely job) refuses to play Lear’s game. She tells him she loves him as she should, as a daughter. This enrages Lear and he banishes her.
When his friend Kent (Brian Martin) defends Cordelia, he banishes him as well. But Kent loves the king so much, he returns in disguise to become his loyal servant. Martin is both funny and stirring in both his roles.
The King’s Fool (a witty Gene Ellis) is of course, the wisest of the bunch. “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” he tells Lear.
The King soon learns that Goneril and Regan are conniving together to destroy him and their ingratitude turns him mad.
Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester (John Kleimo) is having troubles with his sons, the elder Edgar (Sean Deffley) and Edmond (Preston Schreffler), who is not a legitimate heir and is filled with rage. Edmond is one of Shakespeare’s nastiest villains and Schreffler’s low-key poison is wonderfully evil. He will stop at nothing to find his place in the world.
He convinces his father that Edgar is betraying him, which Gloucester too quickly believes. Kleimo’s performance is fraught with kindness and sadness and is a nice contrast to Lear’s rage.
The emotionally blind Gloucester, like Lear, rejects the child who actually loves him.
Edgar, meanwhile, seems to go mad when he thinks his father is trying to kill him. Now calling himself Tom, meets up with the mad Lear in the wilderness and the two have quite an insane conversation. Deffley’s performance is agile and intriguing.
Other excellent performances in the show include Rogan Motter as the prickly Oswald, stewart to Goneril and Bob Checchia as Regan’s husband, the Duke of Cornwall, who is as nasty as his wife.
John Rohrkemper is Albany, Goneril’s husband, and despite all that goes on around him, he turns out to be a good guy.
The set, designed by Mike Rhoads, is absolutely perfect, as columns move back and forth to present different scenes in both castles and the wilderness. And the lighting design by Mike Wiltraut works with the set to convey these scenes and give us a strong sense of place.
The costumes, designed by Kate Willman, are pitch perfect, except for the Fools costume, which look like an old pair of pajamas. Odd.
This is a daunting play. It’s 3 1/2 hours long (including two intermissions) but in the first act, which is almost 1 1/2 hours long, the time flies. As the play goes on, the pace could have been quickened a bit with shorter scene changes (there are a lot of them), but that is a minor complaint.
This production is one for the EPAC ages.