Fort Worth — If you were looking to copy a successful Shakespeare festival, Trinity Shakespeare would be a good place to start. Just don’t expect for them to make it look easy.
Running in rep means recycling the same actors between two different shows. For some theaters that means recycling the designers, the venue and possibly the director, as well, but not at Trinity.
King Lear, directed with pristine clarity by T.J. Walsh, inhabits the Jerita Foley Buschman Theatre while Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed with comedic flare by Joel Ferrell, sits practically across the hall, fully fledged in the Marlene and Spencer Hays Theatre. These are mammoth productions with their own individual design teams, with the exception of sound designer Toby Jaguar Algya, who does double duty.
This ostentatious show of effort (especially evident in the costumes) wouldn’t be worth a hill of doublets, though, if it bogged down the Bard. Fortunately, that’s where Trinity gets it right where others just get left: clarity. Make Shakespeare accessible and the people will come.
Admittedly, the set designs do have their own flights of fancy. Bob Lavallee’s set for Love’s Labor’s Lost is a sumptuous vibrant tapestry that covers the floor and becomes the wall with tree trunk cutouts to create the forest, and Brian Clinnin’s set for King Lear has a raked stage with a backdrop of distracting seismographic squiggles. But, the clarity of the staging creates a real world the audience can enter easily.
Walsh’s opening scene of King Lear is a perfect example of the sensitive treatment an audience can expect. The beginning of the tragedy comes when the King asks his daughters to pronounce to the court which of them loves him the most. When the youngest daughter is unwilling or unable to satisfy the monarch’s demands, she’s disinherited dramatically. To a high school student reading Shakespeare’s words on the page, this comes across as the harsh behavior of kings who make their decisions through a remote and impenetrable logic.
In Walsh’s production, the throne is turned so that we are practically watching over his shoulder. Immediately, there is an intimacy that no textbook could convey. Add to that the ever-congenial David Coffee as a warm Lear and Trinity Shakes is on its way to undo years of boring English classes.
When Delaney Milbourn, as youngest daughter Cordelia, fails in her public praise, Coffee stands and closes the distance to her to give her a little private fatherly coaching before returning to his kingly seat. By turning the throne room sideways we are privy to the tender moment. Walsh’s staging makes use of the oft-neglected distinction between public and private speech Shakespeare weaves throughout his work to create a more loveable Lear. For the rest of the play the lengths loyal characters like Kent (played with an agile accent by Richard Haratine) and Gloucester (played with heart-tugging nobility by Chamblee Ferguson) go through for his sake seem reasonable in light of this opening scene. When they say that he was a great man, we don’t have to just take their word for it. We’ve seen proof.
Words can be false, after all.
The sisters Goneril (Lydia Mackay) and Regan (Sarah Rutan) are the first to thrive through empty words. Their pronouncements of love are so convincing that it makes their later treachery jarring. But two-faced characters shouldn’t shock after the subplot-summing soliloquies of Edmund (Montgomery Sutton).
The illegitimate son of Gloucester sets out in detail how he will use forged letters and lies to overthrow his brother Edgar (Bradley Gosnell). As his plots succeed no one is safe, even the two-faced sisters. When the wheel of tragedy makes its inevitable way around, the conclusion is, of course, sad, but the way the web of treachery ensnares the perpetrators makes it also satisfying.
On the balance, the audience leaves with a surprising sense of resolve. It’s an evening of high tragedy that isn’t shattering; a Lear that quivers the lip but leaves it stiff. That’s a rare achievement.
There are quibbles, of course.
The aforementioned set backdrop of squiggles and Michael Skinner’s lights, beaming through thick haze, can sometimes distract. Algya’s multi-layered storm also battles the players for attention at times. Aaron Patrick DeClerk's costumes make up for any design shortcomings, in amount and intricacy, at least, and also surprisingly subtle palettes. It’s only because of the moments when all the elements are working perfectly that draw attention to the times when they are out of sync, like all the signal lights in a turn lane flashing at the same time. They serve their turn regardless, but occasionally, when blinking together, their combined brightness makes the darkness that follows darker.
Late in the play, Lear reunites with Gloucester, who has had his eyes torn out. It’s here that Coffee and Ferguson shine together. With Lear fully mad, Coffee is freer to play to his comedic strengths. As these men, blind to their offspring’s treachery, one now literally, rediscover each other, these two actors coax all the levels of tragedy and tenderness out of the encounter without wringing it out of shape. It’s as if they know that the blades of irony are sharpest when handled gently. By the end, no one escapes uncut.
Director Joel Ferrell’s Love’s Labor’s Lost has similar moments of perfection, but with different members of the same cast. It’s a testament to these players’ flexibility, talent and stamina that they can pull off the switch from night to night, but also to the festival as a whole that a consistent level of excellence in production is achieved.
Ferrell keeps to the Trinity code of clarity by punctuating this wordy comedy with bits of business. It’s not hard to translate the text into physical action when you’re used to directing and choreographing complicated musicals. Nowhere is Ferrell’s flare for the physical more apparent than in the staging of Don Armado’s letters.
Blake Hackler plays the fantastical Spaniard with castanets and a pageboy wig. When someone reads a letter in Don Armado’s tortured English, Ferrell has Hackler narrate it in spotlight like a opera diva bullfighter facing the fiercest bull of all: love. It’s a genius device that shows off the skill of the choreographer and dancer alike. Hackler makes a fine Fool in Lear, but he’s an even better Don Armado.
The plot of the play turns on a lot of missent letters, but the gist is that no sooner has the King of Navarre (Richard Haratine) convinced his lords to swear off women than the Princess of France (Lydia Mackay) show up with her ladies. Of course, the men fall to wooing, but by the power of the aforementioned title, their labors are lost.
Bob Lavallee has created a fantastical set that is wonderfully whimsical and Aaron Johansen amps the ambiance with his lighting design, especially in the second act. It’s Lloyd Cracknell’s ornate costumes, however, that whip the whole affair into a romantic frenzy.
So, the boys can be forgiven for being so smitten, even when they come in dressed as Muscovites. It seems like a good idea. By that point the audience is so full on love, they’ll forgive anything. Actually, it’s again a credit to Ferrell’s choreographic prowess. The audience is no match for an ensemble with timing so tight.
As with the production of Lear, though, the evening has moments so fine that they eclipse all otherwise worthy accomplishments. When the King of Navarre (Haratine) has caught two of his lords, Longaville (Timothy Paul Brown) and Dumain (Bradley Gosnell) writing love letters, he is in turn revealed to have written one of his own by his lord Berowne (Montgomery Sutton). When Berowne himself is found out to be an author of a love letter as well, the scene starts to really take off.
Ferrell leaves his tricks and lets the text take over. Sutton responds with true passion. The contrivances like climbing through the audience, while funny, can’t compare to his frantic yearning-fueled reasoning. His anguish yields huge responses from the audience as he convinces the King that they should woo the women. Sutton’s fire as Berowne is a sharp change from his Edmund in Lear.
As great as the letter scene is, nothing compares to Mackay’s performance in the second act. Shakespeare sets out a tricky trap in that the ladies Rosaline (Kelsey Milbourn), Maria (Delaney Milbourn) and Katharine (Sara Ruten) match up so perfectly with the King’s lords. The men pursue and the ladies play hard to get. Everything seems well met and ripe for a marriage, but a messenger arrives resulting in romantus interruptus. Mackay’s navigation through the aftermath is so heartfelt and text so clear that it eclipses the price of the ticket. Ferrell is wise enough to know that there is no beating it and resists the temptation to stage the troublesome ending song of Spring and Winter. It just doesn’t get any better.
If you go with a loved one, you’ll leave holding them a little tighter. If you don’t, then you’ll leave looking for one. Time is too short to mess around when it comes to love.