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A Masterful King Lear from Classical Theatre Company and The Prague Shakespeare Festival

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The setup:

There is so much to praise in the Classical Theatre Company and The Prague Shakespeare Festival's joint production of King Lear (which is playing in repertory with As You Like It) that I could fill a short review by simply listing everyone in the cast and crew and remarking on their excellence.

Let's start with the potentially daunting play itself: someone, likely director Guy Roberts, did a masterful job of conflating and editing two versions of Shakespeare's thunderous masterpiece, so that the play flies, reaching its tragic, corpse-filled finale in a trim two-and-a-half hours.

The execution:

The story unfolds on the barebones set created by the excellent Jodi Bobrovsky. Lear (Rutherford Cravens), ready to retire from the throne and devote all his waking hours to hunting and "riotous living," calls together his three daughters so that he can abdicate and divide his kingdom among them. Showing himself to be the most foolish of the play's many fools, Lear puts his daughters to the love-test before telling them which portion will be theirs. Goneril (Holly Haire) and Regan (Jessica Boone) have no trouble conjuring up the honeyed words the old man's ego requires, and winning their royal third, but Cordelia (Blair Knowles) has too much integrity to flatter, so her father disinherits her in a rage, and his descent into self-inflicted hell begins. Haire and Boone both grow powerfully into their characters' darkness.

The parallel plot involving Gloucester (Thomas Prior) and his two sons, Edmond the traitor (Guy Roberts) and the loyal but betrayed Edgar (Jeff S. Smith), is extremely well performed. The dashing Roberts (who also directed) revels in his character's Machiavellian evil, while Smith most impressively descends into feigned madness when Edgar takes on the disguise of Poor Tom.

But while the secondary characters form an overabundance of dramatic possibilities, the play is titled King Lear for a reason. The foolish former king contains multitudes, and Rutherford Cravens registers powerfully in each of his phases.

The verdict:

The idea of seeing Cravens take his crack at Lear was this production's principal attraction for me, and he doesn't disappoint. He wears the part's demands lightly, and doesn't stint on the humor. It's the performance of a career; I just hope that enough Houstonians--and Praguers (in May the production moves to the Czech capital) --take the opportunity to experience it. If you don't, you're missing quite a show.

A word about the Prague component: Guy Roberts also directs the English-language Prague Shakespeare Festival. Some members of the Houston cast, including Cravens, will be taking Lear and As You Like It to Europe, and a couple of Czech performers are in the Houston production, most notably acclaimed actor Pavel Kÿíÿ, who brings an impressive physicality to his performance as the Fool. After watching his antics, I wasn't surprised to learn that he was crowned "King of the Dance" on the Czech version of Dancing with the Stars.

In repertory with As You Like It, King Lear runs through May 1 at Main Street Theater - Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose Blvd. For information, call 713-524-6706.

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