King Lear

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jennifer Pennington

Review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2016 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Baron Kelly & Charlie Sexton in King Lear. Photo byTom Fougerousse

As a character, King Lear is the great aging lion, one of what Charlton Heston called the “man killers” of Shakespeare, and a play that examines the hubris and arrogance in power held too long. In an unusual collaboration, Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC) and University of Louisville Theatre Arts are co-producing this production, which mixes faculty and students from both institutions among its cast and crew.

Lear’s tragedy of betrayal and madness is elemental in its force and impact, manifested overtly in the raging tempest at its center. Jennifer Pennington’s staging is courtly at first, relinquishing the formality for pain, rejection, and chaos. Yet the big emotions never quite reach the heightened levels that we expect in Lear.

An aged monarch who has decided to divide his lands among his three daughters, Lear (Baron Kelly) requires that each declare their love, which the two eldest, Goneril (Mia Rocchio) and Regan (Lois Adelmalek) execute with expert obsequiousness, but when the youngest, Cordelia (Sidney Edwards) refuses to play along, Lear banishes her. Having effectively gained control of the empire, Regan and Goneril spurn their father in turn, and the rejected and heartbroken paterfamilias falls into madness.

Baron Kelly as Lear is a sputtering old soldier-king colored with an edge of eccentricity that foreshadows the eventual mental breakdown, which arrives after intermission. Kelly’s physicality is stiff and regal at the beginning, and he progressively breaks it down until he is a fluidly expressive, albeit broken, man. Yet, as fascinating as this performance is, it remains studied and intellectual, just missing the exposed nerve aspect that is Lear lost on the storm. As the King’s loyal and trusted confederate, Gloucester, Charlie Sexton enters with benevolent authority, then charts a descent into disingenuous suffering that echoes Lear’s course. In the aftermath of the character’s brutal mutilation, Sexton captures the ravaged soul with a raw and brutalized voice, and this production’s finest moments might be the two together on the “blasted heath”.

These two performances largely define this Lear, and are also the tent poles of the collaboration between the two companies: Kelly from U of L, Sexton from CTC. Some of the other players acquit themselves well but often lack the gravitas called for to drive home the impact of the story. Shaleen Cholera is a very good Edmund, making his treachery a bit too frivolous perhaps, but a smart and charismatic turn nonetheless. Michael Stein was impressive as his brother Edgar, and he made the most of “poor Tom” when he is betrayed and cast into the wilderness. Mia Rocchio managed to find some of the dark soul of Goneril, and Lois Abdelmalek illuminated the Machiavellian traits of Regan, but both of the elder daughters felt incomplete. Isaiah Hein projected resolute authority as Cornwall, and Terry Tocantins’ followed Kent into limbo with inventiveness. Ross Joel Shenker makes a notable entrance as Lear’s Fool, but then falls into the background more quickly than usual for that character, which does mysteriously disappear from Shakespeare’s text without explanation.

Director Pennington appears to acknowledge this with a slow fade out on the Fool wistfully alone onstage in his final moments. It is a subtle touch indicative of the finer points the production is striving for. She is well supported by superb design work from Zhanna Goldentul (costumes), Jenn Calvano (sound design), and most especially Kevin Gawley, who designed the set and lighting. The stage floor is placed on an unnerving rake that gives the sense that the action might come spilling into our laps, which lends the whole thing a vertiginous inertia, and his work with projections during the storm scenes were startling, although the “rain” of light seemed to end before the sound of rain falling. Opening night gremlins aside, this was a gorgeous looking production.

The ensemble, which included CTC students Parker Henderson, Bailey Lomax, Alec Elmore, and Aditya Dixit in mostly small roles (although Mr. Henderson gets a juicy, violent death in one of his multiple roles), and from U of L, Sidney Edwards, James Stringer, Maxwell Wiliams, Lauren Dobbs, and Dee Scott, were proficient. Ms. Edwards has distinguished herself in previous work I have seen, most memorably in Bloodline Rumba at U of L last season, but her Cordelia doesn’t quite have the same impact, reminding us that the character is underdeveloped after her principled stand in the opening scene.

King Lear here is a handsome production with much commendable work, but for me it misses the depths of what the play truly is. Long before Joseph Conrad, William Shakespeare investigated the human heart of darkness in a handful of plays that still speak to our experience 400 years after they were written. If tragedy is the identification of the furthest reaches of human cruelty and the heights of redemption, nobody has ever done it better than the Bard of Avon.

King Lear

November 10-20, 2016

Tickets are $8 for UofL students, $12 for other students and alumni, faculty, staff and seniors and $15 for general admission.

Commonwealth Theatre Center/University of Louisville Dept of Theater Arts
U of L Playhouse
1911 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40292


KeithKeith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for