Review: ‘Lear’ by Marcus Gardley, a world-premiere adaptation/modern translation of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ (*****)

L-R: James A. Williams as Lear rages against the storm while the Duchess of Kent (Cathleen Riddley) watches with pity and horror in the world premiere of Marcus Gardley’s modern verse translation/adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece, presented by CalShakes in collaboration with Oakland Theater Project and Play On Shakespeare. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Many scholars and readers consider “King Lear” to be Shakespeare’s greatest masterpiece, perhaps even the greatest dramatic work in the history of English literature, “Hamlet” notwithstanding. Certainly for depth of feeling, intimacy of emotional content, philosophical range and theological profundity there is nothing like it.

For this reason, many will approach a new adaptation/translation with trepidation. Will Lear be reduced by a modern setting, a Black perspective, the incorporation of jazz music? Why tamper with this particular masterpiece?

Relax. It is the genius of Directors Eric Ting and Dawn Monique Williams, along with  playwright Marcus Gardley and jazz composer Marcus Selby (and I DO mean “genius”) to bring contemporary perspectives to the classics without compromising greatness. For Gardley, Oakland and similar communities are as rich a source of inspiration as any locale in the Shakespearian cannon. And Ting’s thing is to inform the classics with contemporary issues without resorting to stridency, preaching, or propaganda. Trust me: with Ting, Williams, Gardley, and Selby collaborating across the centuries with good old Will Shakespeare, you’re getting a bouquet of genius, not just a single flower. And everything fits just fine.

Gardley has set Lear’s tragedy in the 1960s in the jazz-infused Fillmore District of San Francisco (often referred to as the “Black Harlem”). Lear is a businessman who has decided to divide his holdings amongst his three daughters, motivated by changing times as redevelopment in the form of an invading freeway is tearing apart the Fillmore.

You know the gist of it. Before dividing up the goodies, Lear demands protestations of love from his three daughters and while Goneril and Regan pony up with the compliments, youngest daughter Cordelia gets herself disinherited by admitting there are limits to her daughterly affections and obedience. In return, Lear disowns her with consequences so severe that they drive the old man mad.

Garvey makes the astonishing decision to treat much of this with a light and comic touch, defying expectations. It is a wise choice, allowing the audience to easily accept the 20th century setting and the references to Black culture (much of it by means of Black comedy), and setting us up for the devestating emotional impact that follows. But there are plenty of laughs along the way. The incorporation of the classic Black comic meme “here come de judge” (reference the great Pigmeat Martin and many Black comedians to follow) is particularly effective. The idea of Lear as “de judge” is rich with humor and implication, achingly so. You have to laugh and you have to cry.

Nevertheless, this is, emphatically, Shakespeare’s tragedy. The entire story is told with ease and clarity.

The performances are outstanding, led by James A. Williams star showing as the King. Williams misses nothing. His Lear is a blasted tower. Unforgettable. Many actors  consider ‘King Lear” to be the summit of their profession, and Williams is working at the mountain top.

Among many fine performances one must, as is so often the case, single out Jamar Tagamac as Edmund, the Bastard. Is there no role in which Tagamac would not shine? This man brings to every acting assignment the kind of joy Louis Armstrong brought to the trumpet. What more can I say?

It seems overly much to call out each cast member by name, but with a company like this, how could I not?

Velina Brown is cast as the “Black Queen,” a character from the mind of Gardley, not Shakespeare, but she belongs. Dov Avram Hassan and Kenny Scott as Albany are fine villains. As Goneril and Regan, Leotyne Mbele-Mbong and Emma Van Lare are the stuff of nightmare. Cathleen Riddley as Kent is the heart of dignity and Dane Troy’s Edgar, masquerading as mad Tom, will break your heart. Sam Jackson as both The Comic (Shakespeare’s Fool) and Cordelia is gently engaging. And, of course, I already called out Jamar Tagamac as Edmund and I don’t mind repeating myself on the excellence of this characterization.

This is the last CalShakes production under the guidance of Aritistic Director Eric Ting  who is departing to other pastures, where, no doubt, he will work wonders.

So, go. This “Lear” is not-to-be-missed.

“Lear” plays at the Bruns Amphitheater in Berkeley through October 2nd. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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“Lear,” a world premiere adaptation/translation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” by Marcus Gardley, produced by CalShakes in colllaboration with Oakland Theater Project and Play On Shakespeare. Co-Directors: Eric Ting and Dawn Monique Williams. Music: Marcus Shelby. Scenic Designer: Tanya Orellana. Costume Designer: Lux Haac. Lighting Designer: Scott Bolman. Sound Designer: Elton Bradman. Wig/Hair/Makeup Designer: Cherelle D. Guyton, MBA. Resident Fight Director: David Maier. Intimacy Director: Jeunée Simon. Choreography: Kendra Kimbrough Barnes.

Cast:

Lear: James A. Williams. Gloucester: Michael J. Asberry. Black Queen: Velina Brown. Cornwall: Dov Aram Hassan. Cordelia/The Comic: Sam Jackson. Goneril: Leotyne Mbele-Mbong. Kent: Cathleen Riddley. Albany: Kenny Scott. Edmund: Jomar Tagatac. Edgar: Dane Troy. Regan: Emma Van Lare.

Musicians:

Marcus Selby: Upright Bass. Scott Larson: Trombone.

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