The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is presenting an open-air production of King Lear through July 7, alternating with The Taming of the Shrew, at the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City.
King Lear is a hot-tempered, self-centered old man who makes some bad decisions that bring disaster on himself and others. His story is heavy with tragedy, violence, insanity and cruelty - challenging to perform and challenging to watch.
On turning 80, Lear decides to give up his responsibilities and divide Britain among his three daughters. To feed his ego, he asks how much they love him. Goneril and Regan, both married to powerful dukes, deliver speeches filled with flattery and mock devotion.
Cordelia, the youngest and Lear's favorite, is too honest to butter up her father. When Lear asks her what she can say to outdo her sisters, she answers, "Nothing." She feels her lifelong devotion speaks for itself.
The king doesn't see it that way. He angrily disinherits her, dividing her portion between her sisters. When his loyal follower the Earl of Kent begs him to reconsider, Lear banishes him as well.
Cordelia's suitor, the King of France, understands her value and is happy to marry her without a dowry. They go off to France together.
Meanwhile, another story is unfolding. Edmund, illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is desperate to become heir to his father's title and estates. He forges a letter indicating that his legitimate brother Edgar is plotting to murder their father, then convinces Edgar to flee the old man's anger.
Lear intends to live alternately with his elder daughters - first Goneril and her husband, the Duke of Albany, then Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall.
The two women, having no further need of their father, make it plain that he is not welcome. Lear rages off into a stormy night, loyally followed by his beloved court fool.
Having inherited Lear's power, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall use it ruthlessly against anyone they suspect is still faithful to the old king. Goneril's husband, Albany, takes no part in their schemes, but Edmund, seeing a chance to better himself, joins forces with them.
Inevitably the sisters begin to quarrel, and their rivalry increases when they both fall in love with Edmund. Their power is suddenly challenged by a French army that has landed at Dover, bringing Cordelia with it.
More characters and conflicts are introduced as the action continues, and the tragedy ends with a stage full of corpses.
King Lear is a deep and difficult play, a standing challenge to long-established British theater troupes.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company deserves praise for its daring and energy in tackling it, even if its production can't offer subtle characterizations or illuminate the poetry and majesty of the text.
Frank B. Moorman convincingly depicts Lear hovering between sanity and madness. Lesley Malin (Goneril) and Jenny Leopold (Regan) underscore the selfishness and malice of his two elder daughters.
Christopher Niebling creates a devious Edmund, cleverly manipulating people and smirking as he shares his schemes with the audience. Steve Beall gives a solid performance as the honest, faithful Earl of Kent.
Scott Graham's Duke of Cornwall is a figure of implacable evil. As Oswald, steward to Goneril, Jacob Rothermel creates a vivid portrait of a cowardly sneak.
The others major roles are played by: Valerie Fenton (Cordelia), Bob Alleman (the Fool), Frank Mancino (Albany), Wayne Willinger (Edgar), Chris Graybill (Earl of Gloucester) and BJ Gailey (King of France).
In another Shakespearean play, Macbeth admits he is guilty of "Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself." Vaulting ambition isn't always a fault. King Lear, directed with clarity and intelligence by Ian Gallanar, is well worth seeing.
The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare's King Lear today, tomorrow, June 24, 25, 30 and July 7 outdoors at the Patapsco Female Institute, 3691 Sarahs Lane, Ellicott City. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays. Free parking available in the Howard County Courthouse lot on Court House Drive. Tickets: 866-811-4111 or www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com. Information: 410-752-3994.