An epic tale

Broadway’s Therese Barbato talks fresh interpretation of ‘King Lear,’ on stage at Bristol Riverside through Feb. 16

One of the classics: King Lear is on stage at Bristol Riverside Theatre through Feb. 16. It stars Therese Barbato and is directed by Bedlam Theatre’s artistic director Eric Tucker. Source: Bristol Riverside Theatre

Therese Barbato is no stranger to the stage, with credits including off-Broadway’s Prometheus Bound, Mourning Becomes Electra and numerous productions with Slant Theatre Project. But on Thursday, she will enjoy a major “first” in her career – acting alongside an all-female cast.

Barbato is one of six women starring in the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, which runs through Feb. 16 at Bristol Riverside Theatre as part of its 33rd season. Another “first,” BRT has collaborated with the renowned Bedlam Theatre, out of New York City, to help present a modern look at this classic tale. The play is directed by Bedlam’s artistic director Eric Tucker.

“It’s so great. I mean, it’s six women and – no shade at men – it’s so wonderful to work with all women. It’s such a constructive, creative, fun environment,” Barbato told The Times. “For me to get to work with five other women, it’s just so refreshing. It rarely happens in theater.”

Considered by many to be the greatest tragedy ever written, King Lear is an epic tale of sorrow, forgiveness, madness and reconciliation. It follows the aging king as he creates a succession plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, requiring each to flatter him in order to receive her gift. When his youngest child Cordelia refuses, he takes her out of the equation and splits the country between his two eldest daughters, setting off a chain of events that leads them into civil war and sees the elderly king exiled and going mad.

Playing the role of Cordelia is Barbato, who appeared last year in the Broadway version of King Lear. After a few days of rehearsals for the Bedlam interpretation, it was quickly clear the two are strikingly different.

“The King Lear that was on Broadway was pretty traditional, aside from the fact that it was a woman playing King Lear,” she said. “This is a six-woman cast, and the director has cut and rearranged the text so that you only follow King Lear throughout the entire experience, which means a lot of the things in the whole script, you don’t necessarily get to see unless King Lear sees them. This is a much more deconstructed, throw-paint at-the-wall kind of imaginative retelling of King Lear.”

Most cast members play multiple roles, with Barbato also embodying the Fool, Lear’s closest companion. According to Barbato, both Cordelia and the Fool serve a similar purpose.

“They’re both the only characters in the play who tell him [Lear] the truth. They’re not really afraid of him or dress things up for him. The Fool and Cordelia are both just cutting through it,” she said. “It’s fun to play both those parts and to think, how similar are they? How different are they? What does it matter when you’re mapping King Lear’s experience? What’s the best way to serve that particular point of view?”

While this is Barbato’s BRT debut, Tucker is returning after directing The Rivals last season, and believes audiences will thoroughly enjoy King Lear.

“It’s timely because it’s about family, politics and power, succession, human nature and maybe most of all, because the writing is some of the best in the English language. That never gets old,” he said. “I hope audiences are able to look at a classic play in a different way. I hope they see how expansive theater can be with the help of their own imagination and the way we tell a story, which is always trying to find the most theatrical way of doing so.”

BRT artistic director Keith Baker shared Tucker’s sentiment.

“It is a major part of our mission to explore everything theater has to offer and to bring the most exciting and contemporary ideas to our stage,” Baker said. “Bedlam is a well-respected innovator of classical work. It will be unlike anything our audience has seen before and will hopefully enhance the reputation of BRT as being fearless in what we choose to present. This is the first time BRT has presented another theater company on its mainstage. Getting to know Eric Tucker, the artistic director of Bedlam, when he was here directing our production of The Rivals was a clear indication that his work should be seen on our stage.”

In addition to Barbato, the cast of King Lear includes Lisa Birnbaum, Eliza Fichter, Santa Claire Hirsch, Stefani Kuo and Zuzanna Szadkowski. Szadkowski, who appeared as Dorota on Gossip Girl and was Nurse Pell on the Cinemax series from Steven Soderbergh, The Knick, plays King Lear.

Ahead of opening night, Barbato shared a few final words on why theater-goers should come see the six in action.

King Lear can feel really intimidating. It’s one of the most famous tragedies of all time, and it can feel kind of heavy. The production I was in before was 3.5 hours. But this is going to be an hour and a half, and it’s really going to be a fascinating deconstruction,” she said. “I don’t think you really need to know the play or have a great wall of experience of Shakespearean text. It’s just going to be a wild ride for the audience to get to accompany Lear on this journey. It’s Shakespeare in a way you will not have seen it.” ••

If you go…

King Lear runs at Bristol Riverside Theatre through Feb. 16. Opening night is Thursday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $10-$50 and are available at brtstage.org, the box office or 215-785-0100. The theater is located at 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Subscriptions for the 2019-2020 season are still available.

Upcoming shows include Cabaret, March 10-April 12, and A Leg Up, May 12-31.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com