King Lear
Through Sep. 24
William Peace University’s Leggett Theatre, Raleigh

There’s a moment near the end of King Lear when the blind Earl of Gloucester wonders if he’s been misled. Though he has asked a companion to lead him to the edge of a dramatic precipice, the ground underfoot seems less than mountainous. Regrettably, this joint production by Raleigh’s Honest Pint Theatre and Fayetteville’s Sweet Tea Shakespeare left us feeling much the same way. By conspicuously lowering the play’s stakes, director Jeremy Fiebig reduces Shakespeare’s theatrical Everest to something nearly unbelievable: an ultimately cheerful jaunt around a rustic barn.

Last summer, Fiebig gambled big that changing the frame around an audacious production of Hamlet would emphasize its theatrical magic. In having actors talk and sing out of character, engaging with the audience before the show and between acts, Fiebig underlined the fact that we were always watching a troupe perform Shakespeare’s text instead of encountering the playwright’s characters directly.

Why doesn’t the same bet pay off this time? Start with uneven acting and direction. Though full credit is due to striking supporting cast members, the principals seemed either miscalculated or less developed. Though wittily costumed by Laura J. Parker, Kaley Morrison rarely ventured beyond the safest character choices as Regan. While Jennifer Pommerenke’s work as Lear’s faithful, banished daughter, Cordelia, seemed internalized—nearly a placeholder at points—Tohry Petty’s overacting exaggerated Goneril’s vanity and villainy. Along with Allan Maule’s Albany, each reminded me, in the least auspicious way, that instead of viewing characters, I was watching actors acting.

On the brighter side, Aaron Alderman’s dramatic lighting made David Henderson’s grinning, articulate villain, Edmund, even more sinister, and Evan Bridestone brought authority to the kind but hapless father, Gloucester. Unsurprisingly, veteran Wade Newhouse was persuasive as Kent, a good man in a series of bad situations, and Alderman explored Edgar’s noble and madhouse turns in disguise as the beggar Tom. Samantha Corey’s loyal, sharp-witted Fool kept her conscience and balance throughout Shakespeare’s ever-shifting plot.

Though Fiebig’s work onstage, as an angry Duke of Cornwall, was enjoyable, his staged combat with Jessica Osnoe’s servant was wholly unconvincing. And scenes drag when Simon Kaplan’s otherwise engaging Lear most directly wrestles with madness, in his tutelage with Tom and in a subsequent mock trial of his thankless daughters.

Music director Jacob French started things off on the right foot as a rousing, high-energy cover of Canadian band Hillsburn’s “Bury My Heart” predicted the schisms to come in the chorus, “I’m not gonna miss you, no, I’m not.” French’s palette of cajón, pianos, and strings provided dark psychological underscoring.

But a storm scene that diminished Lear’s greatest trial to a careful tempest in a washtub typified this production’s woes. A final change to Shakespeare’s script and a cheery last song from another Mumford & Sons knockoff leveled Shakespeare’s Everest, in what was the happiest—and the least earned—ending of any Lear I’ve seen.