By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Jul 08, 2018 at 12:01 PM

New York City has Shakespeare in the Park, a free event presented by The Public Theater in the city’s glorious Central Park. As an additional gift to audiences, often the plays feature big name stars, who earn tons of acting cred for speaking the famous speeches of Hamlet or Juliet "trippingly on the tongue."

Here at home, Milwaukee has Optimist Theatre, a non-profit organization that presents drama workshops in schools and free performances of one Shakespeare show each summer, outdoors at the Peck Pavilion – part of the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts campus Downtown. This year’s production is "King Lear" which, like its big city cousin, features some of Milwaukee’s most notable actors.

But that’s where the comparisons end. Unlike the crowds that stand in line for hours to get tickets in NYC, "Lear" opened to a lot of empty seats – and even more after intermission. In the wildly uneven cast, some actors mastered the language and some drowned in it. The sloppily produced show, which runs through July 21, proved that sometimes even free theater isn’t worth the price.

"King Lear" is one of the bleakest tragedies Shakespeare ever penned. It’s the story of an elderly, failing monarch who divides his kingdom among his daughters, giving the largest share to the one who will proclaim her love for him the loudest. Regan and Goneril, the two eldest, comply with this childish ploy for public adoration, while hatching evil plans for their new wealth. But clear-eyed Cordelia, the youngest daughter, refuses to participate in the ugly contest. So Lear flies into a rage and banishes her, along with his close advisor, the Earl of Kent. The rest of the play devolves into maelstrom of murder, greed, devious plots, shifting alliances, torture and madness, as the king repents his fateful actions.

Or at least, it usually does.

The impressive and emotionally stunning thing about tragedy with a capital "T" is how far the players fall and how much they lose, as a punishment for their own flawed actions. But in this production, the stakes are surprisingly low. From the very beginning Jim Pickering’s Lear barks out orders and works through the story like he’s playing a chess game, rearranging pieces and arguing with those who oppose him like a tactician, not one who is feeling genuine loss or betrayal. And though the king mentions several times that he’s losing his mind, it’s more of an expression here than an admission of illness or diminished capacity. Even his mournful wails in the final scene as he cradles the dead body of Cordelia (Malkia Stampley) in his arms fail to elicit any real emotion.

And as small as Lear’s character arc is, the villains of the play travel an equally short distance. Regan (Kat Wodke) and Goneril (Jacque Troy) definitely sink their claws into one another at the play’s end, but they appear more entitled than evil most of the time. Annoyed with their eccentric dad, who has taken far too long to hand over the family business, these women come off simply as ungrateful brats.

They are taking advantage of the opportunity that has presented itself, rather than siblings determined to destroy their own father politically, physically and emotionally. But they fare better than Stampley’s bland and blank Cordelia, who has so little to do or say, it’s almost surprising when she re-appears in her death scene.

Jonathan Wainwright plays the bastard Edmund like a cool cop on the take instead of a heartless Machiavellian cad. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just out to get what’s his, you know? That’s understandable. He got a bad break on that whole "born out of wedlock" thing. And if his father Gloucester (Sam White) and brother Edgar (Tom Reed) fall for a few forged notes and suggestions of betrayal, well, that’s their problem.

As the fool, Robert Spencer also has a simplified role – as the voice of doom. From the moment Cordelia is banished, he chastises Lear for his stupidity and rashness. There are few jokes from this clown, only accusations delivered with deliberate gravity. The choice to use an actor approximately the same age as Lear was an interesting one; it gave him authority and perspective that few other characters could offer. But that perspective was decidedly one-note.

While Spencer made the riddles and musings of the fool crystal clear in his delivery, Tom Reed’s faux madman Poor Tom was barely decipherable. And the large emotional gap between him and his much abused father, Gloucester, drained all the warmth out of their eventual reconciliation.

Problems with interpretation were compounded by second-rate production values, clumsy fight choreography and starkly unimaginative direction.

Director Lisa Gaye Dixon’s blocking, particularly in the larger scenes, was dull and largely symmetrical, with Lear in the center. The extra-wide stage, which could have been an interesting asset, only prolonged the characters’ entrances and exits, many of which became tedious.

The costumes and accompanying banners, designed by Christy Seibers, were basic in the extreme – very obviously color coded by family, with an all black ensemble for Edmund, in case there was any doubt about who the bad guy was. Aside from the simple but attractive gowns for the three sisters, the amateurish costume plot was better suited for a high school madrigal dinner or Halloween party. The fool’s elf/munchkin attire was particularly silly.

While the motivation behind this production is a good one – to introduce new audiences to Shakespeare – sadly the end product is unlikely inspire.