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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Richard Ooms stars as the mad titular character in Door Shakespeare's production of "King Lear."
Richard Ooms stars as the mad titular character in Door Shakespeare's production of "King Lear." (Photo: Jason Fassl)

"Comedy," "King Lear" open an exciting Door Shakespeare season

"The Comedy of Errors" may well be the funniest of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and "King Lear" may well be the most tragic. Getting to see both of them in one startling day is to see the breadth of Shakespeare and the diversity of his canon that has given so much to the world for four centuries.

Door Shakespeare, the fourth of the Equity theaters in Door County, unveiled both plays Saturday in one action packed, startling few hours that drove home just how marvelous this company is.

The afternoon began with "The Comedy of Errors," a twisting tale of identical twins and mistaken identities that has all of the elements of a classic farce, except for crashing doors. It has doors, but they don’t crash.

One of the most difficult tasks for any company doing Shakespeare – and especially difficult for young directors – is how to make the language understandable while being true to the tenor and tone of the story.

"Comedy of Errors" has a tenor and tone of great humor, with lines and jokes that sneak up on you. You find yourself smiling, then chuckling and then laughing out loud.

Leda Hoffmann, a young Milwaukee director, leaves her imprint on the play with clear language and with every single laugh in the script. It’s a rare achievement for any director, especially a young one. She guides her cast with steady hand but doesn’t restrict the actors' freedom to play.

And play they do.

The story concerns a pair of identical twins: Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse, and Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse. As you can understand just from that set up, the entire plays is drenched in mistaken identities. The backdrop is the tale of woe from Egeon, who had the two pair of identical twins with his wife Emilia. At sea, a storm swept away his wife, one Antipholus and one Dromio.

Throw in a couple of merchants, a spurned courtesan, Adriana the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus and her sister Luciana her sister, and you’ve got enough characters all spinning plates in the air. The performance by Elyse Edelman, who plays Luciana, is absolutely priceless. While her sister whirls and twirls, she is the picture of bewilderment, embarrassment, curiosity and quiet lust. Without a single word, Edelman draws laughs just with her face and body.

The cast is universally strong with a couple of standouts: Michael Perez, who plays Antipholus of Ephesus, and Jennefer Ludwigsen, who plays the troubled courtesan like a hooker who found an empty envelope on the dressing table after her customer has left. Meanwhile, Perez has a presence on stage that belongs to only a few and has a facile voice the swoops and swoons with magnificent control and precision.

The audience in the lovely 180-seat outdoor theater was delighted throughout the play, embracing both the spirit and the passions of this performance.

90 minutes after "Comedy" ended, "King Lear" came roaring and stumbling into the playing space with enough treachery for the best and most intricate of stories.

The old King of Britain, recognizing his aging, plans to divide his kingdom among each of his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and the youngest, Cordelia. The two oldest daughters flatter the old man with the kind of over-the-top and competitive words of love. The king falls easily for the false adoration. Recognizing the lies behind the love, Cordelia refuses to profess her love for the king and is banished from the kingdom by her father.

Thus, the scheming begins. Husbands, wives, two Earls, a bastard son, a couple of Dukes and an overwhelming fool begin the machinations that result in death, blindness, pain and sorrow. It also includes the famed Shakespearean tactic of "the truth will out."

"Lear" is a play that demands a marvelous supporting cast, but also demands an actor of great stature and ability to play the king.

Richard Ooms, who also directed, is a rare actor who captured the nuances of Lear. So often, the king is played from the get-go as a feeble wreck. But Ooms, who has a lengthy career with the Guthrie Theatre, understands that the early Lear will only make more dramatic the Lear who dies at the end.

Along the way, Lear slides slowly in the madness as he watches the world around him disintegrate into jealousy and betrayal. His descent is obvious to everyone, and they line up to take advantage of what’s left of the king.

Ooms has all of the gravitas required of Lear, bounding about early as a king still in charge of both his kingdom and his life. He is an actor of marvelous depth.

"Lear" truly is a play about a man and his daughters, and all three of them create sisters who are clearly defined and identified.

As the oldest sister Goneril, Leslie Ann Handelman uses her immense skills to set a new standard for both evil and disloyalty. She is a Chicago actor in her third season with Door Shakespeare and will hopefully be around for many more.

Ludwigsen plays Regan, the middle daughter who is in the middle on the treachery scale as well. Her taking up the opposition and deceit toward her father is a bonding moment with Goneril. But betrayal lurks, and Ludwigsen has a scene where she is poisoned that is gut wrenching.

As the baby of the group, Victoria Caciopoli has a wonderful vulnerability mixed with a steel backbone that refuses to be cowed by her strong, demanding sisters. Her loyalty is about the only virtue on the stage all evening.

No review of this production would be complete without talking about Milwaukee’s Jason Fassl, perhaps the busiest – and one of the finest – lighting designers in the country.

The playing space at Door Shakespeare is a small circle of wood chips, with minor set props and dominated by a gnarled, imposing oak tree that towers over the stage. Without a detailed set, something has to set the scene for the play.

It’s hard to describe what the sophisticated and meaningful aura Fassl created in the outdoor space. The lights dim and shine and flash while there is thunderous storms and quiet drama. It’s almost as if the play belongs to the lights. Fassl is an incredible storyteller with no dialogue, just with lights. He has an intimate instinct for just what a story is calling for.

After several years of inertia, Door Shakespeare is on the way back with the energetic Amy Ludwigsen (the sister of Jennefer), who has brought a passion and dedication to her position of executive director. She is smart and creative about the business end of things, but he has a lengthy career in theater and understands the marriage of the two.

Great talent, great plays, a wonderful space and dedicated leadership spell nothing but good things for Door Shakespeare. It makes a worthy visit for theater fans throughout Wisconsin.

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