Everything old is somewhat new again as Wright State University opens its 42nd season with a terrifically acted and designed quasi-world premiere of “Restoration!,” an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s 1606 dark tragedy “King Lear” inspired by Irish poet Nahum Tate’s sunnier and redemptive 1681 adaptation “The History of King Lear.”
Written and directed by W. Stuart McDowell, Artistic Director of WSU’s Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, “Restoration!” aptly reflects the exhilaration and progressiveness of the Restoration Period. This era welcomed a resurgence of enlightened and thought-provoking English literature and drama specifically the reopening of theatres which had been closed since 1642. Women were allowed to perform on stage for the first time as well. Opening only 65 years after Shakespeare’s death, Tate’s version proved controversial with its lighter additions including an endearing romance between valiant Edgar and Lear’s bold daughter Cordelia, two characters who never meet in Shakespeare’s version. However, these insightful changes mirrored the hope and promise of the era especially Lear being restored to the throne just as Charles II was restored to the British monarchy. Tate’s successful version was performed for nearly 160 years and was notably seen in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1771 by George Washington.
McDowell’s history with “Restoration!” harkens back to his career in New York City spearheading the Riverside Shakespeare Company, a troupe he co-founded in 1977 with his wife Gloria Skurski. Originally adapted in 1985, the play was a hit and the critics heralded it as “a ‘Lear’ for our times.” Even so, McDowell continued to rethink his script over the years and revised the premise which adopts an inviting play-within-a-play framework. The production is set at the first rehearsal of “The History of King Lear” as legendary actor Thomas Betterton faithfully guides his players through the fresh script. Some cast members are wary of tackling “King Lear” anew because they feel Shakespeare and his words are immortal, but a vivid reminder slices doubt, “let the theater set the example for what should be – not what is.” Incorporating charming conceptual touches such as a harpsichord, imaginative sound effects including a wind machine, and colorful period-flavored songs co-created by Sandy Bashaw, McDowell winningly crafts an engaging world of pomp and circumstance, choral glee, familial deceit, sword fights, and sibling catfights befitting the Restoration Period and Shakespeare’s fascinating characters. Costumer Christie Peitzmeijer’s beautiful period attire, David J. Castellano’s efficient raked stage complete with footlights, Matthew P. Benjamin’s exceptionally evocative lighting design, Bruce Cromer’s robust fight choreography, Ryan Burgdorf’s sound design, and Deborah Thomas’ dialect coaching also impress in setting the proper tone and look of this historical drama.
McDowell’s cast of 18 is uniformly strong and distinctly sophisticated. Fine principals include the delightfully energetic Joey Logan as the jovial, determined and passionate Thomas Betterton/King Lear, the dynamic duo of Katlyn Tilt and Julia Gomez as conniving sisters Goneril and Regan, beguiling ingénue Katie Sinicki as Cordelia, Christian Schaefer as Cornwall, Josh Beasley as Gloucester, Jake West as Kent, appealingly earnest WSU newcomer Ross Bloedorn as the noble, crazed Edgar, Dana Bixler tenderly rendering “Long Live the King” as the Fool, and an outstandingly cunning and suave Connor Lysholm as the villainous Edmond. Lysholm, a brooding Jay Gatsby last season in McDowell’s staging of “The Great Gatsby,” injects great nuance (notice how he caresses Lear’s throne chair in Act 1) while displaying a contemporary-esque mastery of the text. He also embraces his treacherous role with a pompous, intimidatingly cool swagger effortlessly transforming the raked stage into a raked runway with every stride and strut. His knockout portrayal clearly indicates how fantastic he would be as King George III in “Hamilton.” Hopefully a smart casting director will someday agree. The cast includes Mallory Kraus, Kenneth Erard, Brynnan McNeill, Jeremy Farley, Isaac Ingle, Zack Pruett, Danni Hepp, and Madeline Musico.
Commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and remaining impactful since the idea of “madmen leading the blind” hasn’t lost its cultural or political sting in 2016, “Restoration!” elegantly excels with joy, humor and heart.
“Restoration!” continues Oct. 1at 8 p.m. and Oct. 2 at 2 p.m. inside the Creative Arts Center Festival Playhouse of Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Act One: 80 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $22 for adults and $20 students and seniors. For more information, call (937) 775-2500 or visit https://liberal-arts.wright.edu/theatre-dance-and-motion-pictures/boxoffice