Possibly Shakespeare’s greatest play, KING LEAR has seen multiple productions and adaptations over the years. The Wallis tackles the latest – and possibly the most controversial – adaptation with Joe Morton taking center stage as King Lear. Well-known winner of the Emmy Award and NAACP Image Award, Morton now takes on the leading role in one of Shakespeare’s best known tragedies. Together with King Lear’s two treacherous daughters Regan (Brie Eley) and Goneril (Emily Swallow) and his one brutally honest daughter Cordelia (River Gallo), Morton has fashioned a high energy, explosive production which may well turn Shakespeare on his ear. Set in the near future – a future marked by environmental catastrophes which threaten its very existence – King Lear must deal with challenges which tax his strained senior coping strategies – and which may eventually lead him to madness.
Joe Morton’s KING LEAR is certainly the most animated and vigorous version of Shakespeare to hit the stage this year. Relying heavily on a deeply involved and highly active production team, KING LEAR almost takes second place to Keith Skretch’s projections (which grace the sides of the stage with videos of chaos in its many forms), X. Hill’s costumes (a creative mixture of past, present, and future with a few oddments and rags thrown in), Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting (strobe viewers beware), and Steve Rankin’s rough and tumble fights. Christopher Barreca’s scenic design is minimalist with just a few tables and chairs easily destroyed and resurrected. Audience members have the option of sitting in the theater or on the stage, while cast members join them awaiting their upcoming scenes.
Now on to the play, one which goes almost beyond an adaptation into a new universe. It makes sense that Morton opined in a recent interview that KING LEAR should probably be played by a younger actor (in contrast to the many seniors who have assayed the role in the past). Action is definitely the word of the day, both physically and even in line delivery. Between shouts, yells, croaks, and stage whispers, Shakespeare’s lines have never seen such activity. Speaking of Shakespeare, it should also be noted that many of Will’s characters have been collapsed into one person and/or actors have been called upon to perform more than one role. For aficionados of the Bard, this tends to lead to some confusion as audience members try to figure out who is who and what is what while sorting through the complexities of the original play.
Above all, audiences cannot fault the enthusiasm and energy of the cast led by the talented Joe Morton. Directed by John Gould Rubin, who certainly had to stay on his toes, KING LEAR is definitely a different version of the old story. With music composition and sound design by Danny Erdberg and Ursala Kwong-Brown, KING LEAR is bold, loud, and occasionally jocular. The current production should appeal to true lovers of Shakespeare – but primarily to audiences who enjoy a new and creative take on Shakespeare.
KING LEAR runs through June 5, 2022, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA. Tickets range from $39 to $125. For information and reservations, call 310-746-4000 or go online.