The Tragedy of Lear

by Christine Malcom

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 17, 2015

Erin Kelsey, Kate Booth and Stephen McClure
Erin Kelsey, Kate Booth and Stephen McClure  (Source:Facebook)

Cave Painting Theater Company's "The Tragedy of Lear" (a gender-swapped Shakespeare adaptation) is an ambitious undertaking by a young, itinerant company. In a handful of minor ways, what the production could be exceeds what it is, given the reality of limited resources and the kind of rough edges that only time and experience working together can smooth. But on the whole, the show is a thoughtful, enjoyable, well- executed piece of work by a talented cast that is likely to be unparalleled in its diversity.

Director Gwen Kelly-Masterson, who also adapted the play, hits all the right spots in both alterations to the text and what she and the cast make of the gender swapping. From early on, Lear's handing over of power, not to her sons, but to her daughters-in-law, is played with no particular emphasis, as it needs nothing more than the subversion of the expectations and assumptions of even a progressive, equality-embracing audience. Kelly-Masterson and her actors simply let the moment jar in our consciousness.

In other moments, though, director and cast are productively playful with the issue of gender. Edmund's manipulation of Gloucester comes with a few subtle beats of cuddling and eyelash batting, just slightly playing up the fact that a mother's rejection of her illegitimate daughter carries with it an entirely different set of baggage than a father's disdain for his bastard son. Likewise, the gendered subtext of the competition between Regan and Goneril for Edmund, as well as Albany's ultimate embrace of Lear's cause are subtly and capable underscored by director and cast.

The set (designed by Zoe Mikel with murals by Elena Amesbury) make the most of the group's limited budget and need to occupy a shared theater space for a relatively short run. Amesbury's murals emphasize the importance of the natural landscape, and "cultured" spaces, whether buildings or battlefield tents, are capably conveyed by low platforms with coats of arms that can be set upright or laid flat.

The challenge of the shared space, with limited rehearsal time in it was unfortunately obvious from time to time as the platforms were low enough to present a tripping hazard for the actors, and the sound design occasionally either overwhelmed the dialogue or was so close to indiscernible that I interpreted it as unwelcome noise from outside the theater on more than one occasion.

Katie Craven's costumes, for the most part, were also sensible and functional. Lear's outfit is the most distinct, with layered scarves and a shawl-collared coat in shades of purple. Albany and Cornwall were set apart from the other women with business casual dresses, and ensemble members mostly wore close-fitting black clothing accented as needed to shift roles.

In a rare misstep, ensemble members would often enter the stage in pale blue Volto masks. In some cases, this seemed designed to "anonymize" them as "miscellaneous servants." However, the masks were visually distracting and not used in consistent, decipherable fashion. Furthermore, in some cases, the mask seemed to complicate the work of "doing nothing on stage" for some of the cast. On a related note, costume shifts were sometimes too subtle (or entirely absent) to indicate when one actor was entering in a new role.

The cast is very strong on the whole, though occasionally what I assume was a relatively brief rehearsal period showed itself as scenes or individual performances didn't quite gel. Elizabeth Kelly's Lear leads the way. She's as impressive in her rage as in her caprice, so that the audience sympathizes with her throughout, but can also see her children's point of view.

Meredith Ernst is exceptionally good as a thoroughly villainous Edmund, who somehow remains appealing enough that the audience sees why the people around her want to believe, rather than feeling that they're simple dupes. Carolyn Biery, in the more minor role of Oswald, also hits those beats remarkably well.

Ellen DeSitter is another standout as the Fool. Without ever sacrificing the surreal black comedy of the role, DeSitter and Kelly manage to craft a real relationship between the two characters that remains impenetrable to the others moving about the same canvas.

Ian McLeland (Goneril) and Jesse Hutson (Regan) distinguished themselves by having interesting relationships not just with Lear and their wives, but also with one another. Too often, the sisters are played as relatively interchangeable in their lack of gratitude and filial affection. Gabriel Howard's Cordelia is not quite as memorable, particularly in the interactions with Stephanie Mattos (France), who is a strong and interesting presence in that character and her various ensemble roles.

As Kent, Helen Young does an admirable job of portraying the loyal, exasperated, aging-but-still-badass second in command (kudos to Gabriel Howard's violence design in conveying not just the action of the play, but character-appropriate differences in level of skill).

Sandra Howard as Gloucester seemed to have a less well-developed idea of her role, similarly fading into the background a bit against Ernst's vibrant Edmund. Like Howard, Tina Muñoz Pandya's performance is solid, but as Edgar, she's not quite up to the level of push-back the character needs to hit late in the play.

"The Tragedy of Lear" plays through February 21 at the Raven Theatre Complex, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006 or visit

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.