I needn't have worried. This is a theater company that always seems to rise to the occasion. In this, the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies, King Lear, timeworn and weary, decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters. When his youngest daughter Cordelia refuses to praise the king in return for his favor, she is banished. His other two daughters, Goneril and Regan, despite their protestations of love, plot against him.
In a corresponding subplot, Lear's loyal courtier Gloucester is duped into favoring his deceitful illegitimate son Edmund over his faithful legitimate son Edgar. Lear's struggle with madness and mortality is told very simply in this streamlined production, giving us a much more intimate look at the king's story than is usually told. We are presented with a lean, sinewy play with lots of sharp elbows and exposed nerves.
Performances are solid all around. Carmen-Maria Mandley serves up Goneril with a proper little sneer and Regan is played by Myka Plunkett with verve, her nose up and a terribly dangerous look in her eye. One of the new faces in the company, James Udom, plays Edgar with an energy and intensity that is riveting. Gino Constabile's Edmund is a study in likeable unctuousness and veteran Doug Ryan shines as Gloucester who only gains insight when blinded.
This production as many have before it, casts the roles of Cordelia and the Fool with the same actor. The company is blessed that this actor is Ava Roy who also co-directed. Her stage presence is electric, her performance totally engaged and engaging in both roles. Brava.
John Hadden's performance arc as the title character is a wonder. He resists the urge to make Lear larger than life, instead inhabiting Lear with a more realistic and nuanced demeanor, more suited to the ensemble cast and the intimacy of theater in the round. As Lear's fortunes change, Hadden's transition from early bemusement to rage and madness is authentic and chilling. The moment that Lear recognizes the truth of Cordelia is an emotionally charged frisson that grabs the audience by the lapels.
My quibbles with this production are small. Some of the atonal music that is used in the production distracts rather than enhances, and the stage fighting seemed too tame.
Make no mistake. This is bare bones, in-your-face Shakespeare. It's exceptionally well-staged and co-directors Hadden and Roy have made sure that these characters have stories to tell that will not be denied.
King Lear plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 through March 23 at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, N.Y. You can make reservations online or call 518-677-2495.