To say I love King Lear is an understatement. I wrote at least three papers about it across my academic career. I’ve played Goneril. I served as a Lear dramaturg. I memorized Edmund’s “Thou, Nature, art my goddess” soliloquy just for funsies. So my expectations whenever I go see a production of Shakespeare’s nearly perfect tragedy are high. I’m happy to report that the interpretation of Lear now onstage at the Sedgwick Theater, produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, did not disappoint.
Quintessence’s Lear is staged in two separate spaces—the Sedgwick’s black-box theater and the venue’s stunning Art Deco inner lobby. The mirrored hall serves as the perfect throne room in which to begin and end the play, and the versatility of the black box—lined by the audience on two sides and void of any set save for a round, rotating platform at center stage—stands in stark contrast both in terms of opulence and utility. For a play that constantly returns to the theme of “nothing,” the empty space was appropriate and arresting.
Lear is a play that moves—from Lear’s own palace to those of his sons-in-law, the dukes of Albany (in Scotland) and Cornwall (southwest England); to the home of the Earl of Gloucester (also in southwest England); to the White Cliffs of Dover (southeast England); to a French ship docked in the English Channel. The choice of leaving these settings to the imagination of the audience was a wise one, expediting the action and putting the actors first.
From the sound of it
There’s plenty to see here, but there’s even more to hear, so much so that I probably could have sat with my eyes closed for much of the performance and still followed the action perfectly. Interstitial music cues and in-scene sound cues are expertly utilized to make up for the bareness of the set. Then, of course, there are the actors’ voices.
Something happens with certain actors’ voices when they do Shakespeare—you know it when you hear it. Actors’ voices get deeper, their enunciation clearer, their projection louder. Even if they don’t have—or aren’t attempting—a British accent, they take on a cadence that’s not exactly foreign to an American ear, but sounds much more Katharine Hepburn than Katherine Heigl. To a person, each member of the Quintessence Lear cast had this voice down. I could have listened to them for hours.
Representation, not gimmicks
It’s all too common to overlook actors of color when casting the classics, so I was happy to see that the roles of Lear (Robert Jason Jackson), Cordelia (Eunice Akinola), Goneril (Donnie Hammond), Regan (Anita Holland), and the smaller role of the King of France (Jahzeer Terrell) are all filled by Black actors. And a woman takes the role of Gloucester (E. Ashley Izard).
That all these actors turn in stunning performances (J Hernandez as Edmund and Jake Lowenthal as Edgar stand out in particular) reinforces the fact that historically homogenous (i.e., all- or majority-white) Shakespearean casts benefit from diversity. It also makes me lament the productions that might have been—in Philly or elsewhere—if other theater companies had made the same commitment to better representation.
Casting that's reflective of our actual community—and a few textual tweaks to make Gloucester’s gender-swap make sense in the context of the show—meet with a vision of King Lear that is, at its core, a good and faithful interpretation of the Bard’s work. There are no gimmicks, no attempts at updating or modernizing the set or props. It’s just good old-fashioned Shakespeare, with a modern whiff that makes the work compelling for today’s audiences.
What, When, Where
King Lear. By William Shakespeare, directed by Alex Burns. Through April 20, 2019, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7131 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or www.quintessencetheatre.org.
The Sedgwick Theater is an ADA-compliant venue with wheelchair-accessible seating. Audience members move from their seats at multiple points in the show.