UMKC’s workaday King Lear finds value in its acting and tech design

Sometimes Shakespeare’s works feel uncannily close to modern life. That sensation of familiarity is uncommonly strong in the King Lear now onstage at UMKC’s Spencer Theatre, a co-production of Kansas City Actors Theatre and UMKC Theatre.

Here, the eponymous king (fiercely portrayed by Theodore Swetz) seeks flattery above all else, and is too shallow to see through its fakery or to value honest sentiment. (“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” Lear’s Fool says.) As a result, a chaos of political machinations ensues — power grabs, manipulations, betrayals. Unlike our current U.S. wannabe monarch, inner reflection and regretful repercussions ultimately expose integrity, even if it’s sadly too late.

But amid the darkness, there are those who are loyal and good — and who, in the end, actually prevail. Directed by Ryan Artzberger, this straightforward production, which runs about two hours and 45 minutes, finds its goodness in fine acting and appealing technical impressions, particularly sound (a cackling fire, the thunder and raging winds of a storm), costuming and lighting (backdrops of mauve, bright blue or golden hues, depending on the time of day; the radiance of firelight; the bold strikes of lightning) — Zack Pierson, Caroline Allander and Shannon Barondeau, respectively. 

Engaging us in the story is a collaboration of seasoned actors and theater students, many of the latter also experienced performers. Attention-holding portrayals include those by Swetz (Lear), Logan Black (Kent), Mark Robbins (Gloucester), Peggy Friesen (the Fool), Khalif Gillett (Gloucester’s “bastard” son, Edmund), Charlie Spillers (Gloucester’s son Edgar), Heather Michele Lawler (Lear’s daughter Goneril), Amy Billroth-MacLurg (Lear’s daughter Regan), Ken Sandberg (Albany) and Jay Love (Oswald).

It’s a particularly active Act 2, when the stakes get higher and the violent acts — the physical kind, anyway — increase. While we don’t feel all that sorry for this sorry king, whose hubris has brought so much destruction, we’re moved by his profound grief, and we’re grateful for the valiant folks who persevere on his behalf. This King Lear, too, finds redemption, in the end, through the expertise and energy of a committed cast and crew.

King Lear

Kansas City Actors Theatre and UMKC Theatre

Through October 22 at Spencer Theatre, James Olson Performing Arts Center, UMKC, 4949 Cherry, 816-235-6222,

Categories: Stage, Theater