The Globe Theater’s sterling King Lear

Stages around the world are observing Shakespeare’s 450th birthday and what better way to join in than to be able to catch a sterling production of one of his masterpieces by The Globe Theater, his original company. In Philly, The Globe Theater on tour brings all of the thunderous power, passion and theatrical glory to King Lear, kicking off the 2014-15 Annenberg Theater season.

King Lear is aging, weary and driven to erratic behavior. When Lear abdicates his throne and divides the kingdom among his three daughters, Goneril and Regan play to his vanity with false love. Once given power they completely turn on him. His youngest, Cordelia loves him unconditionally, but she does not deceive him with insincere affections, so he shuns her. He does not see the plots the older sisters are hatching, as he lavishes his affection on them and as they wage war on Cordelia. There is intrigue all around as loyalties divide and calamitous Shakespearean fates visit them all.

The acts are condensed, and six of the eight actors take multiple roles. Voice coach Martin McKellen orchestrates an array of British Isle dialects, deftly appropriated by these actors. Shakespeare’s meter pulses through no matter East Ender thick, Northern provinces lilting or Dover briny they get.

Joseph Marcell (of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air fame) has actually been an accomplished stage actor for 40 years. As Lear he has so much command from the start, his raspy voice thundering or whispering, full of lucidity and befuddlement, he calibrates dimensions of the part with lithe virtuosity, makes this one for the books. Meanwhile, Bethan Cullinane double tour de force as Cordelia, the defiantly true daughter, unfairly banished, reveals her lion heart in forgiving her father and shielding him from attack. She is equally fine as the mocking, most wise Fool at Lear’s side. .

Daniel Pirrie’s gives Edmond study swagger and wry villainous charm, manipulating everyone for his own gain. Alex Mugnaioni, impressively popping in and out of several roles just captivates as mad Tom, scrambling around the set, in near naked griminess. When he appears wretched and crazed in front of Lear, Marcell’s delivers every subtlety to one of Shakespeare’s most profound speech about the fragile and pathetic dicey state of man.

Later Mugnaioni is equally mesmerizing in the lyrical passages as he guides the betrayed, tortured Duke of Gloucester who goes to the edge of the rocky cliff poised to end it all. John Stahl plays Glouchester with seething intensity, but appropriating heightened period tragedy by not overdoing it. As scheming daughters Goneril and Regan, Gwendolyn Chatfield and Shanaya Rafaat give straightforward, if a bit underpowered, performances.

This portable production is conceived to travel anywhere and to be performed outdoors, so the house lights are kept on in the theater, harkening back to Elizabethan authenticity. The skeletal octagonal mini-Globe theater set, with mise-en-scene curtain & period sound effects is joyous, unfussy stagecraft. Jonathan Fensom’s WWI era costume design is an unfussy muted-color collection of theatrical garb that could have been pulled last minute from backstage trunks.

Director Bill Buckhurst’s busy stage business and character switching can make some plot details hazy, but his scene focus and pace is sharp throughout. Kevin McCurdy’s fight choreography could have had a little more refined attack, but that is nit-picking. As Shakespeare’s final cut of Lear instructs, there is to be music. The actors sing Alex Silverman’s troubadour tunes and play flute, horn, drum and palm and flap accordions.

King Lear run Sept. 24-27 at Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Check | 215.898.3900
Joseph Marcell King Lear