Barry Kraft plays King Lear, flanked by his daughters Goneril (Mallory Wedding), left, and Regan (Chelsea Acker) in Southern Oregon University's production of “King Lear.”

OSF pros lift no-nonsense 'King Lear'

"King Lear" is a play you don't want to mess around with. Its world is so pitiless, its action so dark, that the kind of tinkering that often goes by names like "re-imagining" would risk dampening its signal effect, which is a certain dread.

The new production that opened Friday night at Southern Oregon University, directed by Brent Hinkley, is a sprawling, take-no-prisoners version of Shakespeare's most nihilistic play, propelled by Barry Kraft's fine performance as Lear.

Hinkley and Kraft are professional actors at SOU's neighbor, a little thing you may have heard of called the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Although OSF actors often contribute work to SOU plays, I don't remember seeing one in a leading role at the college. One surmises that there are payoffs for theater arts students in working with the equity actors, and perhaps trade-offs, as well. You don't have a chance to play Lear, but you get to work with a master.

From the audience's viewpoint there's no downside; the presence of the pros lifts the whole thing. To see Kraft, as Lear, struggling to come to terms with his own foolishness on SOU's big Center Stage, transformed by scenic designer Sean O'Skea's magic into an impressionistic ancient Britain with massive, moveable flats, is such stuff as a lot of theaters' dreams are made on.

This is a big undertaking in every way. In an era of the two-person play, there are 30 actors and 14 speaking parts. There is the old king himself, one of the greatest roles in world of drama. There are swordfights, a raging storm, lightning and thunder, murder, madness, mayhem, body parts rolling around. The whole thing is listed at three hours and ran closer to three-and-a-half.

Kraft commands the stage when he's on, which is much of the time. Early in his imperious stage he wears a crown, the upthrust of which may remind you of Glinda the Good Witch. Crowns symbolize power and glory, so maybe the steroidally exuberant headgear suggests the old fool's inflated opinion of himself before his betrayal and fall. Hats aside, as Kraft descends into madness and gropes for some kind of redemption, this is a powerful, affecting Lear.

Gloucester, compellingly fleshed out by Geoff Ridden, anchors the lively sub-plot. When Lear and Gloucester meet on the beach at Dover, one mad, the other blinded, it is heartbreaking.

Zach Myers and Blaine Johnston shine as Gloucester's odd-couple sons Edmund and Edgar. Myers is oily and repellent as cardboard villain Edmund, and Johnston is noble (despite the play's misogyny) as the selfless Edgar, and weirdly believable in his sequence as whacked-out Tom O'Bedlam.

The other villains, Mallory Wedding as Goneril, Chelsea Mia as Regan and Levi Goodman as Cornwall, are thuggish and brutal and go about their dreadful work with relish. Cornwall's eyeball scene with Gloucester includes the plucked orbs squirting onto the floor, where in a nice touch they're later picked up by one of Cornwall's mob — a minor bit of housekeeping, don't you know.

It is moving in Lear's death scene to seem him grasp at straws as he tires to convince himself that Cordelia lives. But in his world there is no redemption, unless you count a certain splendor in the ashes.

What warts there be on this no-nonsense "King Lear" are minor. There are moments when some of the actor's speeches can't quite be heard, moments late in the play where the pace lagged. But this is a fine go at a monumentally challenging play — with all those young actors.

I never go to "King Lear" without wishing on some level, just for an instant, I could just be seeing "Twelfth Night" or something instead. But if it's good you wind up being touched, if not uplifted. It's a feeling a bit like having your eyes snap open at 3 a.m. to the sudden feeling of a bleak, indifferent universe.

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