Jennifer Pennington and Neill Robertson in "King Lear"
Jennifer Pennington and Neill Robertson in Kentucky Shakespeare’s “King Lear” | Photo by Bill Brymer

By Ben Gierhart

Out of all of Shakespeare’s plays, “The Tragedy of King Lear” is perhaps my favorite, if ultimately devastatingly bleak. Did you know it was considered too tragic to perform in its original form for nearly a century? Thanks, Wikipedia.

Its themes have always resonated with me, and some of its more astute observations have stood the test of time and remain as socially relevant as ever. The questions “King Lear” poses of self-knowledge — both regarding the individual and the State — and the hands in which we place the power of government are important.

It also is my opinion that some of the most gorgeous language in the canon is in this play, so I was thrilled to see it a part of Kentucky Shakespeare’s 59th season. The play opened Thursday, June 27, in Central Park.

Jon Huffman and Neill Robertson
Jon Huffman and Neill Robertson in “King Lear” | Photo by Bill Brymer

Set in ancient Britain, “King Lear” follows the eponymous king as he — knowing that his youth is long behind him — decides to divvy up his kingdom amongst his three daughters.

There’s a show of making each of them profess their love for him.

Regan (Hallie Dizdarevic) and Goneril (Abigail Bailey Maupin) play the game and receive sizeable portions as a result. Lear’s third daughter, Cordelia (Amber Avant), refuses and subsequently is denied an inheritance.

Her honesty impresses the King of France, however, and she’s whisked away into a life of bliss.

If only.

I won’t overload with details on the plot except to say that, surprising absolutely no one save Lear, Regan and Goneril prove to be pretty evil and make living in the newly divided Britain a hellish experience for Lear and his subjects. There are contentions over succession, disguised identities and plenty of swordplay — i.e. everything that makes Shakespeare awesome.

As far as performances go, I simply cannot go on without talking about Jon Huffman (King Lear). For those who don’t know, many of Shakespeare’s protagonists were written for the talents of a man named Richard Burbage. In fact, the reason some of Shakespeare’s works began to feature older protagonists was to create roles for the legendary actor.

Some of Shakespeare’s best writing is reserved for those roles, and Huffman rises to the occasion. Having an actor of his caliber in town is something not to be taken for granted.

Neill Robertson (Edgar) also gives a breathtaking performance. Full disclosure: I was in a production of “King Lear” with him in 2014 where he played the same role, and if possible, he’s even better this time around. Robertson deftly executes both subtle and extreme changes in body and voice with an ease that has to be seen to be believed.

Tom Luce (Fool) also displays a verbal and physical wit I’ve seldom had the chance to see from him. It’s a masterful performance of a character who, in many ways, is central to the play’s messaging.

A scene from "King Lear"
“King Lear” is not without swordplay: Gregory Maupin, Braden McCampbell, Angelica Santiago, Neill Robertson, Tom Luce and Jon Becraft | Photo by Bill Brymer

I found myself wanting more from Braden McCampbell (Edmund). While certainly physically imposing, his portrayal lacked the menace and brutality I’ve come to expect from the character. In all fairness, I attended the production’s preview performance, so he very well may settle into the role after the final tweaks have been done.

“King Lear” is nothing but immensely quotable, and one of its more memorable lines also is perhaps its most nihilistic: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

With costumes from Donna Lawrence-Downs and scenic design from Karl Anderson that wisely are in dialogue with Central Park’s natural foliage, and rich lighting and scenic design from Casey Clark and Laura Ellis respectively, there certainly is an investment being made here. Creating something from nothing is a theater artist’s bread and butter after all, and Kentucky Shakespeare once again does not disappoint.

“King Lear” continues through July 21. As always, all Kentucky Shakespeare productions are free of charge. Drinks and a pre-show start around 7 p.m., and the play starts at 8.