"KING LEAR," Utah Shakespeare Festival, through Sept. 4, Adams Shakespearean Theatre, 299 W. Center St., Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org)
CEDAR CITY, Utah — "King Lear" is often considered one of Shakespeare's greatest tragedies, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival's excellent current staging, directed by Sharon Ott, does it justice as such.
A dark and somber mood takes the stage even before the show begins, with bleak music playing as Lear's three daughters pace and pause their way around a stark set, warily eyeing one another and a map on the ground as the king's Fool, played by David Pichette, looks on.
Tony Amendola plays Lear, who has decided to divide his kingdom among his daughters and spend his remaining years living with each of them in turn. The girls' inheritances are dependent on them publicly proclaiming their devotion to him, and Goneril (Melinda Pfundstein) and Regan (Saren Nofs-Snyder) state their love and receive their lot. But the youngest daughter, Cordelia (Kelly Rogers), is spare in her words and is disinherited. She marries the king of France (Sam Ashdown) and begins endeavoring to set things right in a kingdom that quickly falls into turmoil as her elder sisters fail to live up to their words.
With his masterful portrayal, Amendola transforms Lear from a highly indignant king to a raving madman and finally to a heartbroken father. His movements and speeches carry such nuance that it's hard to imagine how the other actors can reach his level — and yet several do.
While Lear is betrayed at the hands of his elder daughters, the Earl of Gloucester (James Newcomb) faces his own family problems with his sons as the younger and illegitimate Edmund (Brendan Marshall-Rashid) decides to overthrow his brother Edgar (Tyler Pierce), Gloucester's heir.
Marshall-Rashid as Edmund is wicked to the core and delights in every moment of his deception in a performance that's both thrilling and chilling. But Pierce holds his own as Edgar, who spends much of the play in "disguise" — with wild hair and wearing what amounts to a cloth diaper — as madman Tom O'Bedlam, in a portrayal that's fairly disturbing but in all the right ways.
The two main stories intertwine as the noble Earl of Kent (Larry Bull), whose loyalty lies with both Lear and Cordelia, and Edmund cross paths with Lear's deceitful daughters and both families are dragged toward inevitable destruction.
Pfundstein and Nofs-Snyder give performances as appropriately heartless as Rogers' is heartfelt. Newcomb fits well as Gloucester, and Pichette displays a brilliant balance of brashness and kindness as Lear's Fool — and friend.
The performances alone make "King Lear" one of the season's standouts, but the design work is also noteworthy.
The deliberate bareness of the stage (scenic design by Vicki M. Smith), with its dark colors and general lack of ornamentation, enhances the tone of the story. The lighting by Donna Ruzika is likewise generally subdued, and the music and sound (Joe Payne) are used to great effect, though Lear's speech became difficult to understand when an echo was put into play during a storm scene. The choreographed fights by Christopher DuVal are thrillingly executed and lend excitement — even when in slow motion — and the weaponry, armor and other costumes (Rachel Laritz) enhance the effect.
Productions of “King Lear” routinely give audiences a taste of what can follow decisions based on pride and ambition, but USF here serves up a generous and delicious helping.
Content advisory: Mild language and innuendo, as well as violence and gore: a man cuts his arm with a knife, men are stabbed and killed, a man's eyes are put out and a bloody eyeball is thrown across the stage (the man is later seen with a bloody bandage over his eyes and blood on his shirt) and a woman is seen with marks on her neck after being hanged.