A show of Shakespeare

Bedlam Theatre’s ‘King Lear,’ at Bristol Riverside through Feb. 16, receives mixed reviews on social media

Star power: Therese Barbato (left) is a standout in the cast as Cordelia, but even moreso, as the Fool. Based on her jester-in-the-city outfit and blatant altering of her voice and demeanor, it’s a breath of fresh air to know exactly which role she’s playing. Source: Mark Garvin

For anyone who has read the Facebook reviews for Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current mainstage production, Shakespeare’s King Lear, it’s instantly clear the comments aren’t as positive as they usually are.

A number of patrons claim to have left the 90-minute production after 30 minutes on opening night, while others who stayed expressed frustration over the confusing dialogue and inability to hear some of the lines. Meanwhile, some said the show was a brilliantly fresh take on a classic play.

So what’s the bottom line? It’s simply not for everyone.

Moments into King Lear, it’s evident that there’s something different. This is because, for the first time in its 33-year history, BRT collaborated with another theater company, the New York-based Bedlam Theatre.

“It’s 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,” said BRT artistic director Keith Baker. “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.”

Unlike The Rivals, which incited standing ovations and boasted songs that got stuck in your head for days, Tucker’s version of King Lear requires a lot of thought and concentration from the audience. Though it’s a fresh, modified interpretation of the tragedy, only showing events through Lear’s point of view (and having a runtime that’s half the length of the 3.5-hour Broadway play), it can be difficult to keep track of who is who on stage.

Tucker revolutionized King Lear by gathering in an all-female cast, which includes Therese Barbato, 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.

Each woman is incredibly talented at her respective craft – not many of us can recite the lines to a single paragraph written by Shakespeare, let alone an entire piece of work. However, aside from Szadkowski, all of them play multiple characters, with their wardrobe changing ever so slightly.

Still, praise should be given to costume designer Lisa Zinni, who creatively brought each look into the 21st century. For example, Szadkowski dominates in a floor-length, sparkly overcoat, while her castmates sport knee-high boots and leggings.

In order to follow along with King Lear, it helps to read the in-depth synopsis found in the program, which chronologically details the entire show. The drama centers around Lear, an aging king who creates a succession plan to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan. He requires each to flatter him in order to receive her gift.

When his youngest child Cordelia refuses to participate, 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.

Barbato (Broadway’s King Lear) is a standout in the cast as Cordelia, but even moreso, as the Fool – Lear’s most trusted companion and confidant. Based on her jester-in-the-city outfit and blatant altering of her voice and demeanor, it’s a breath of fresh air to know exactly which role she’s playing. The Fool, who has no issue with chucking objects at those around him, brings a welcome sense of comedic relief.

Szadkowski also does a good job with Lear, especially during Act V, “The Storm.” As Lear loses his mind (and a few layers of clothing), it’s interesting to see Szadkowski completely let loose and dive into the king’s insanity.

Bottom line – is it worth it to see King Lear? Yes, as long as you’re prepared going into the experience. Follow along with the synopsis, understand that you may be confused at certain points, and embrace the fact that BRT is taking a chance and trying something new.

Following King Lear, BRT is bringing to life the Kander and Ebb smash hit Cabaret, running March 10-April 12. With a book by Joe Masteroff, this musical set in a nightclub with World War II knocking on its door is directed by Baker and features many Broadway standards, including “Willkommen,” “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” The season concludes with A Leg Up by Bucks County’s Ken Kaissar, running May 12-31. The world-premiere farce will be directed by Amy Kaissar.

King Lear runs through Sunday, Feb. 16. All performances are at Bristol Riverside Theatre, located at 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol. Tickets are on sale now for $10-$50. They can be purchased online at brtstage.org, by calling 215-785-0100 or at the box office.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com