Familial deception, failing political power and one man’s disintegrating psyche combine to form one royal mess in an upcoming New Moon Theatre Co. production. William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” which has been called an “unstageable” play, will open at TheatreWorks on Friday, April 6.
Bill Baker (center) leads the cast of New Moon Theatre Co.’s production of “King Lear” April 6-22 at TheatreWorks. Gregory Boller (left) and James Dale Green (right) co-star. (Photo: Courtesy of Sharon Bicks)
“Never in my lifetime have I been in a city that’s been able to mount a live production of it,” said Anita Jo Lenhart, director of the production, who is working with New Moon for the first time.
New Moon is one of the resident companies at TheatreWorks. New Moon’s mission is to stage plays that are not often performed either because they are very old, too avant garde, challenging production-wise or just plain weird.
In the last few years, the company has taken on the like of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Boris Vian’s “The Empire Builders” and a Confederate zombie horror play co-written by New Moon member Zac Cunningham.
“(New Moon) tackle things that other companies don’t seem to,” Lenhart said. “I thought if they’re going to do what no one else dares to, then it has to be ‘King Lear,’ because if not now, when?”
So why is “King Lear” so challenging?
“First you have to find a Lear or you don’t have a play,” Lenhart said. “Lear is old, he’s ‘infirm, weak, and a despised old man,’ according to the script. You have to find an actor who’s old enough to play Lear, who’s not so old that he can’t handle the rigors of the role. You have to have someone in mind.”
For that role, Lenhart turned to Bill Baker, a psychotherapist, playwright and founder of another TheatreWorks resident, Our Own Voice, which writes and adapts its own experimental scripts with the help of mentally challenged adults and youth.
Lear, a pre-Roman British King, is near an inevitable retirement, which he hopes to secure by throwing around his wealth and power. He tells his three daughters that he will give the largest share to the one who says she loves him the most.
Goneril and Regan, the older two, dive into flattery while the youngest, Cordelia, gives an honest but unexaggerated answer. Lear disowns her, only to learn of his older daughters’ treachery after they’ve taken away his power and wealth. In the meantime, as the British crown falls into turmoil, a French army looms off the coast.
“It’s about a man who loses his royalty only to find his humanity,” Lenhart said. “He loses his mind only to find his heart, only to have it broken.”
Because the plot precedes Elizabethan England by several centuries, Lenhart decided to allow for plenty of anachronism where she felt it supported the story. Costumes with include both modern business suits and capes and swords. The set, she said, will be minimal, but with a close-set three-quarters round configuration, which will have most of the audience within a few feet of the action on stage.
Also in the cast are a number of well-known actors making debuts with New Moon including Bennett Woods as Gloucester, the only person in the cast who has performed in King Lear before. Christina Wellford Scott will play Goneril and Kell Christie will play Regan.
As Lenhart has been on the theatre faculty at the University of Memphis since 1987, she was able to draw upon U of M students and grad students as well, several of whom appear in the cast and crew.
Amid the death, mental lapses, and eye-gouging, Lenhart said there is a message for audiences.
“Hopefully it’s a wake-up call to say ‘where is the love present in my life right now?’” Lenhart said.
Tickets for “King Lear” can be purchased online at www.newmoontheatre.org or by calling 484-3467. The show closes April 22.