King Lear offers excellent performances

Something is rotten in the state of Britain, and that's a good thing for viewers of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre's production of "King Lear."

There's nothing cheerful, happy or cheaply amusing in Shakespeare's tragic take on familial and political discord. And that's just fine, because the deeper the deceit and more devious the trickery gets, the more intriguing the performance becomes. Director Joseph Hanreddy's stripped-down approach to the meaty storyline amps up the play's schemes and scandals but resists the temptation to spread unnecessary gloss to distracting details like costumes and set pieces.

In a moment of self-indulgence, Lear, the ruler of Britain, tells his three daughters he'll divide his kingdom among them based on how much they love him. When his youngest and most cherished daughter Cordelia refuses to fawn over her father for profit, Lear rashly banishes her and divides her inheritance between her duplicitous elder sisters, Goneril and Regan. All too soon, Lear realizes his mistake when alliances he was counting on and loyalty he took for granted evaporate with grave results.

The Rep's production shakes the mothballs out of this centuries old (and much adapted) story and avoids the stuffy presentation some Shakespearean productions get saddled with. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal's sets, made mostly out of rough-hewn boards, are simple yet versatile. They facilitate the play's shifting setting surprisingly well and subtly accentuate the onstage goings-on. For example, an elevated triangular stage is swiveled from scene to scene to reflect the changing balance of power.

The most commendable aspect of the production is the way the actors deliver their lines. Given Shakespeare's loaded but outdated turns of phrase, it can be difficult to make audiences understand what is being said, let alone comprehend the significance of it. In the Rep's "King Lear," the actors enunciate clearly and speak slowly and make sure their movements and expressions complement their lines.

Martha Hally has clothed the actors in mostly simple, period appropriate garb. Like the set, Hally's costumes change with the play's plot twists. In the first act Regan and Goneril wear mostly earth-toned velvet dresses, crumpled and formless, but then their costumes shift to figure-clinging gold or provocatively skimpy (for Shakespeare, anyway) white ensembles once they assume power. Cordelia is clad in stiff, starchy taffeta gowns to represent her status as the play's upstanding beacon of morality.

Overall, the spare aesthetic of the sets and costumes served the production well, but a touch of opulence would have accentuated some of the play's more pivotal moments.

Also noteworthy is the production's acting, although some actor's characterization choices are not above question. Mark Corkins (who stepped in as Lear at the 11th hour when another actor dropped out with a back injury) gives a wrathful, passionate performance as the wronged, abandoned Lear. Corkins howls and rages like a wounded bear — which is interesting, since the aged Lear's vulnerability and lack of clout are crucial to the plot's development. It's a non-traditional take on the role of Lear, and perhaps not an advisable one, but Corkins is unfailingly watchable and convincing.

Peter Silbert gives a viscerally rueful performance as Gloucester and Reese Madigan is silkily vengeful as his illegitimate son Edmund, who is bent on making Gloucester pay for not allowing him the privileges of a legitimate child.

A disappointment is Mary Beth Fisher, who plays Lear's wicked eldest daughter. Goneril is a she-viper and has far more venom than Regan, her confidante, but Fisher deliver her lines in a colorless fashion and is curiously dead in her movements, especially her hand gestures. Goneril is a choice supporting role and one can only wonder why Fisher didn't sink her fangs into it.

The Verdict: ****