Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

King Lear
Southwest Shakespeare Company

Also see Gil's reviews of Debbie Does Dallas, 42nd Street, Joseph..., Shifting Gears, The King and I

Jordan Letson, Alison Sell and Emily Mohney
William Shakespeare's King Lear may be 400 years old but the themes of bitter family betrayals, sibling power struggles, lost authority, and how a person's mind can be destroyed are still relevant today. So it's fitting that Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of the tragedy updates the setting to the 1990s. While the (somewhat) modern dress and any lack of traditional Shakespearean English accents in the dialogue delivery may be a shock to Shakespeare purists, they don't detract from the impact of the play. And, in many ways, the modern touches only show that this scenario is one that will repeat itself over and over again.

The story is fairly straightforward. King Lear decides to retire, giving up his power and dividing his estate based on which of his daughters love him most. When daughter Cordelia who, unlike her conniving, lying sisters, refuses to say anything about her love for her father, he disinherits her and gives the money to her two sisters Goneril and Regan. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester's illegitimate son Edmund plots against his older brother Edgar for control. In the end Lear, Cordelia, her two scheming sisters, Edmund, and just about every character in the play end up paying the price for trusting in the wrong person.

As Lear, John Hutton is excellent. His frustration when he discovers the true nature of his daughters and his descent into dementia are superbly played. In both his expressions and his speech we fully grasp the internal struggle, the questions of doubt and the sheer disappointment Lear endures. It is an exceptional performance.

Allison Sell plays both Cordelia and Lear's Fool, and brings an honesty and intimacy to both parts. Her body stature, that includes nervous ticks for the Fool and a stoic royal demeanor for Cordelia, also make her almost unrecognizable between the two roles. As the Gloucester's fighting sons Edmund and Edgar, Ross Hellwig and William Wilson deliver expert portrayals. Hellwig's sly line delivery and his devious plotting, including playing Goneril and Regan against each other for his affections, combine to achieve a rich performance. As Edgar, Wilson has a part with considerable range. Both his portrayal of the disguised crazed beggar and the way he cares for his injured father create a layered performance. Harold Dixon is exceptional as Gloucester, delivering a stirring performance. His scenes in act two with Edgar are touching, as are his later scenes with Lear. Jordan Letson and Emily Mohney are the evil sisters and each delivers the appropriate shade of wickedness, though they should realize that shouting your lines doesn't always achieve the required affect. In smaller parts, Aaron Moore, Jesse James Kamps, and Rick Davis provide the necessary spark to bring their supporting roles to life.

Director Jared Sakren provides a sharp focus to the scenes, creating an intense connection with the audience. He makes great use of the space, including the side areas, and moves the action along swiftly. With just two large moveable flats that resemble graffiti-covered cement walls in a torn apart city, the scenic design by Kimb Williamson, while minimal, works, as it never gets in the way of the story. The addition of thick smog and excellent lighting effects by Daniel Davisson bring the storm sequence when Lear goes mad to vibrant life. Adriana Diaz's costumes are 1990s appropriate, with dark double-breasted suits for the men. However, the use of a simple white dress for Cordelia and black and somewhat ill fitted costumes for her sisters is a bit too obvious in the portrayal of good versus evil.

King Lear is a dramatic, stirring story of individuals who trust the wrong people and pay the ultimate price by losing everything. A king trusts the wrong daughters and banishes the one who loves him most, and a son betrays both his father and brother. With a stellar performance by John Hutton and clear direction, Southwest Shakespeare's production of one of the Bard's most popular tragedies brings the madness and despair of the play to vibrant life.

King Lear runs in repertory with As You Like It through January 31st, 2015, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa, AZ. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 480-644-6500.

Director: Jared Sakren
Production Stage Manager: David R. Drescher*
Scenic Designer: Kimb Williamson
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Costume Designer: Adriana Diaz
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Hair and Makeup Designer: Christy Lindsay
Properties Designer: JennAfer Sankar
Fight Choreographer: David Barker
Music Director: Joshua Martin

King Lear: John Hutton*
Goneril: Jordan Letson
Regan: Emily Mohney
Cordelia: Allison Sell
Duke of Albany: Gary Keast
Duke of Cornwall: Jesse James Kamps
King of France: Noah Brown
Duke of Burgundy: Zach Ragatz
Earl of Gloucester: Harold Dixon*
Edgar: William Wilson
Edmund: Ross Hellwig*
Earl of Kent: Aaron Moore*
Fool: Allison Sell
Oswald: Rick Davis
Curan: Jim Coates
Ensemble: Noah Brown, Jim Coates, Rick Davis, Jeremiah James, Jesse James Kamps, Alex Oliver, Zach Ragatz, Bobby Shook, Rob Trevino, Kevin Wathey

*Member of Actors Equity Association

Photo: Southwest Shakespeare Company

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix