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Review: 'King Lear' is an intimate tragedy

| Wednesday, April 16, 2008

At first glance, "King Lear" seems an odd choice for Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre to open a season themed around "Family Matters."

Shakespeare's tragedy creates such vivid images of an aging king's loss of power and his descent into rage and madness, it's easy to overlook its themes of family relationships and power struggles.

Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre sets that omission to rights with a production that illuminates more than just the dynamics between Lear and his three daughters. It also examines intra-familial interactions through the subplot and intrigues involving Gloucester and his sons -- the legitimate Edgar and the illegitimate Edmund.

The production, directed by James J. Christy, is the world premiere of an adaptation of Shakespeare's play created by Christy and Dakin Matthews, who also stars as Lear.

It's a highly theatrical production in which not just Lear, but nearly everyone except the King's fool suffers from some form of blindness, short-sightedness or lack of vision. Blinded by lust for power, ego or self-delusion, they're unable to see the treacheries, intrigues and in some cases love and loyalty that are obvious to us in the audience.

David P. Gordon's set, Pei-Chi Su's costumes, Andrew David Ostrowski's lights and Nicholas Crano's sound designs place us in a world that's at once any time and no time.

Gordon's set features a circular patch of dirt and a serpentine wall of rough steel that could have been designed by sculptor Richard Serra. Asian touches influence the costuming and the percussive sound design that includes the rumbling of thunder sheets.

The list of actors who over time have played Lear is long and notable.

But Dakin Matthews reshapes the role into his own with a fierce and exhaustive performance of a king who loses kingdom, family and sanity before reclaiming momentary clarity of what he has really lost.

But what's most impressive about the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's production is the overall quality of the large cast.

Lear's three daughters -- Goneril, Regan and Cordelia -- are played by three of the area's most accomplished actresses -- Helena Ruoti, Robin Walsh and Karen Baum. Larry John Meyers appears as the aging Gloucester, who easily falls prey to the manipulations of his illegitimate son, Edmund, played with gleeful and celebratory malevolence by Paul Todaro. Suffering the consequence as Gloucester's less-political, but legitimate, son, Edgar, is David Whalen, seen last year in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre productions as President George W. Bush, Marc Antony and Mr. Darcy.

Simon Bradbury brings illumination and wit in his role as Lear's Fool

Even the smaller roles of the dukes of Cornwall and Albany and the King of France are given specific, interesting characters by Mark D. Staley, David Cabot and Jarrod Di Giorgi.

It's one of Shakespeare's longest plays, coming in at nearly two hours and 40 minutes. Nevertheless Christy's swiftly flowing direction coupled with intense acting and some very literate line readings makes this a Lear worth seeing.

Additional Information:

'King Lear'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre

When: Through April 26 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. April 26

Admission: $41-$47 for adults, $37-$42 for senior citizens and $17 for students

Where: Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland

Details: 412-394-3353.

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