"King Lear" is a name synonymous with tragedy, but the inaugural performance joyously launched the Trinity Repertory Company's 49th season last week. Opening to a packed Dowling Theater, Trinity's take on one of Shakespeare's most famous plays spared no punches in its heart-wrenchingly bleak but gripping adaptation of the Elizabethan drama.
The tradition of performing Shakespeare dates back centuries, but Trinity's "Lear" is both old and new. Ardently faithful to the spirit of the Bard's original work, the acting company makes deliberately modern choices in portrayal and performance. Both the dress and scenery boast present-day touches, and a gender-swapped Gloucester lends new perspective to the portrayal of women in the play.
The dimensions of "King Lear," a play written in grand strokes, take on even larger proportions on Trinity's intimate stage. The set, which utilizes the aisles as much as the stage itself, reflects the deteriorating state of King Lear's Britain as the play progresses. One of the most iconic scenes in the play - where a mad and naked Lear wanders the moor in a storm - simulates a rainstorm from the rafters above.
But the technical details are a background to the acting the play showcases. A collaboration between both Trinity Rep and the Dallas Theater Center, this adaptation of "King Lear" includes members of the Texas company, from the conniving but compelling Edmund (Lee Trull) to Lear's daughters Goneril (Christie Vela) and Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth). All deliver believable performances that will continue when the play travels to Dallas in January.
But no play survives without a center that holds. For Trinity's "Lear," that axis rests with Trinity regular Brian McEleney, who stars as the aged king driven mad by the mistreatment of two of his daughters.
McEleney is no stranger to kingly roles, and his performance reflects the experience of an actor seasoned in Shakespeare. His Lear is one that seamlessly transitions from self-absorbed and foolish to disjointed and desperate, and the closing scene of the play only emphasizes the range of emotion within the character.
Previously performing as the eponymous monarchs in Trinity's "Richard II" and "Richard III," McEleney said he took "very personal" inspiration from his deceased parents when crafting the character of Lear.
"There are very real, very tragic, very complicated issues," McEleney said of aging, citing his parents' experience with illness and impending mortality.
McEleney, who also leads the Brown/Trinity MFA Program in Acting, highlighted the scope of a role like that of King Lear.
"It's a huge Everest of a role," McEleney said. "You don't want to get overwhelmed by that."
But, he said, "King Lear" is a play "about real people, about real life."
There is an obvious appeal to the play itself, which "any educated person has to be familiar with," McEleney said.
But behind the legacy of the play is an enduring message about timeless issues, one which McEleney hopes will draw audiences to Trinity.
"It's also a family drama that is about everyone," he said. "It's about how we exist in the world, how we face the people we love."
Audiences, captured by the intensity of Trinity's production, are bound to agree.
"King Lear" runs through Oct. 21 in Trinity's Dowling Theater.