Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

King Lear
New Mexico Shakespeare Festival
Review by Dean Yannias

Caroline Toby Graham and Peter Shea Kierst
Photo by Jason Ponic
King Lear is one of the bleakest plays ever, but also one of the most exhilarating to experience in person. The gorgeousness of Shakespeare's writing when well-acted makes it so. As Aristotle said, there is a cathartic pleasure to be had from watching a tragedy, and there are few stories more tragic than that of Lear and his daughters. This play is currently being presented at the New Mexico Shakespeare Festival.

The play contains one of my favorite Shakespeare lines, spoken by Gloucester after he has been blinded: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport." In this play, though, pagan deities are not responsible for the catastrophes that befall most of the characters. It is the hideousness of human behavior, one toward another, that brings about the suffering and death of almost all of the major characters. We, the audience, may be dismayed or disgusted or horrified by what we see happening, but we are in a sense relieved when it's over and we realize that at least our lives aren't as bad as all that.

The story is set in motion in the first few minutes of the play. Lear, a vain old king of pre-Christian England, decides to step down from running the kingdom, although he wants to retain the title of king and keep his retinue of a hundred knights. His intention is to settle the succession to the throne while he is still alive rather than risk civil war after his death.

He plans to divide the kingdom into three parts, giving one part to each of his three daughters. But his good intentions go awry quickly when he demands that his daughters tell him how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter him shamelessly, but Cordelia tells him the truth, that she loves him only as much as a daughter should love her father. In a rage, he disowns Cordelia, and this rash act sets in motion the destruction of all concerned. Ah, the perils of having grown older but not wiser.

From this point on, the play moves quickly, clocking in at about two hours 20 minutes in total, including a lengthy intermission. I assume that the script was trimmed by Peter Shea Kierst, who is the best abridger of Shakespeare that I know of. The production is very ably directed by Debi Kierst, who keeps the action moving apace. The blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall and Regan is especially well staged, gruesome though it is.

There are only a couple flaws, one technical, one in casting. Since it's an outdoor performance, the actors each wear a microphone, so the sound comes from speakers on the sides of the stage. On opening night, the microphones kept malfunctioning, often turning off and back on, even in the space of a single sentence. It was a distraction, to say the least, both to the audience and to the actors. Ideally, microphones wouldn't be needed, but not everyone can project their voices through the open air to the audience's ears. I hope the glitchy sound system has been fixed for subsequent performances.

All of the roles are well cast except that of Edmund, the illegitimate son of Gloucester and a major villain in the play. Owen Reid Callis, possessed of a rich voice, is a fine actor in the right role. But there is nothing in his appearance or acting here to suggest that he would be capable of seducing both Goneril and Regan so successfully that they would kill for him. The character of Edmund is a smooth operator extraordinaire, but I didn't get any hint of that from this performance.

The other actors all do excellent work. They make Elizabethan English sound like natural dialogue, not stilted or studied. Pride of place goes to Peter Shea Kierst, who has always been a superb Shakespearean and now is finally the right age for Lear. When he's mad, as in the first scenes, you feel it. And later in the play, when he's afraid that he is literally going mad, you feel that too.

Caroline Toby Graham is wonderful as both Cordelia and Lear's Fool. Rachel Foster is appropriately haughty as Goneril. Aleah Montano is vicious when urging her husband to pluck out Gloucester's other eye, and she swoons convincingly when she is poisoned. Joe Dallacqua is downright scary as Cornwall. Chris Black is earnest as Kent, which is how the role should be played. Ed Chavez is deliciously officious as Goneril's attendant Oswald; in this play, the messenger gets killed, too. Carl Savering does a good job as Gloucester; I feel he is cheated by Shakespeare in that he doesn't get an on-stage death scene, he just sort of disappears from the play. Vincent Kirby as Edgar has to spend much of his time on stage pretending to be Poor Tom, a barely clothed madman, and he pulls it off very well. The other players with significant speaking parts (William Berg, Graydon Clarke, Owen Dana Martin, and Elizabeth Olton) are all also very good.

I don't know why King Lear has such a daunting reputation, considered by some to be unstageable. In this production, it is a completely compelling play that held my attention throughout. For this, credit goes to Shakespeare, of course, and to the Kiersts and everyone involved. We are lucky to have such a fine production of this classic play in Albuquerque, and for free.

King Lear, presented as part of the New Mexico Shakespeare Festival and Vortex Theatre, runs through September 3, 2022, at the New Mexico Veterans Memorial Park, 1100 Louisiana Blvd SE, Albuquerque AZ. Performances are Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30. King Lear runs in repertory with As You Like It. All performances are free. The schedule can be found at