Saturday, December 16 , 2017, 4:22 am | Smoke 54º


Review: Nothing to Be Leery about with Naked Shakes’ ‘King Lear’

Brian Harwell and MadIson Kirkpatrick perform a scene in the Naked Shakes production of ‘King Lear’ at UCSB. Click to view larger
Brian Harwell and MadIson Kirkpatrick perform a scene in the Naked Shakes production of ‘King Lear’ at UCSB. (David Bazemore photo)

Seeing Naked Shakes’ production of “King Lear” this week at UC Santa Barbara (cast two, Wednesday) made me wonder, “Where have I been for the last 11 years?” 

If you haven’t yet seen a Naked Shakes play, do. It’s the thing! 

If this “Lear” (a reprise of one mounted last summer) is characteristic of all Naked Shakes productions, the approach could really make you fall for the Bard, hard. 

The intimacy of UCSB’s Performing Arts Theater—in the round with few seats above eye level of the actors on the floor—created a close-up, urgent and engaging experience. The language seems easier to understand without the barrier of a stage.

Local professional actor Brian Harwell plays Lear with both casts. Beyond that, the only criterion for inclusion in the play is desire and passion for performing it.

The resulting ensemble is so diverse the cast provides ample visual interest in the absence of costuming and set. 

And the actors are right there. Proximity allows subtle eye contact with audience members, a tap on the shoulder, sitting down next to us, or blocking that points the actors in our direction at key moments in the dialogue. 

They break the fourth wall just enough to lure us into the action and emotion, but it never feels too wink wink, nudge nudge-y, even when the fool does it.

The cast exudes conviction. Most performances are strong enough; and when they’re less so, I still enjoy seeing undergrads doing something they love so much.

The story of a bombastic, going-mad figurehead-of-state, “King Lear” seems like a worthy, cautionary tale for our times. 

This adaptation was tightened to keep the story to a swift 90 minutes (no intermission to interrupt the narrative).

Nevertheless, the production held all the elements of tragedy, both at the level of international affairs in Shakespeare’s times and for individuals in a culture ravaged by opioid addiction and gun violence. 

The story opens with family members pitted against each other, and quickly proceeds to loss of reason, abandonment, betrayal, death, and gouging out of eyes. (You’ll have to think metaphorically to apply that last one to the individual level… I hope.) 

It’s intense, yes. My companion wondered, “Did they really have to yell that much?” But it’s also moving, to be so close to portrayal of the kind of anguish that few of us avoid completely. 

Just in case I’m not the only one who didn’t know, an intro to Naked Shakes: the name is more than just fun-to-say alliteration, it sums up what they do. Strip him down and show him off.

The brainchild of Irwin Appel, UCSB professor and director of the BFA actor training program (the only 3-year program of its kind in the UC system), Naked Shakes was founded in 2006. Appel adapted and directed this “Lear.” 

You can still see each cast perform Naked Shakes’ “Lear”:

» Saturday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. (cast one)

» Sunday, Nov. 19 at 8 p.m. (cast two)

Tickets in advance are $12-$18; day of event: $14-$20

Click here for more information or call 805.893.2064 Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a round-the-clock appreciator of the creative act. Contact her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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