Chaos of ‘King Lear’ remains relevant today

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Peter Knox has seen Shakespeare performed by numerous companies around Metro Detroit for decades, but he says the nascent Shakespeare In Detroit company is doing something different.

“It’s like they own this,” says Knox, who portrays the titular character in the company’s production of “King Lear.” “It’s theirs. I think that’s a very important thing for a community to have.”

“King Lear,” which runs through April 19 at Marygrove College, will be the sixth Shakespeare show the company has staged in Detroit since artistic director Sam White founded it in 2013. “Lear,” Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, follows the series of disastrous power grabs that ensue when a dying king divides his realm between his two manipulative daughters. Shakespeare In Detroit has previously performed often-free shows exclusively in nontraditional venues, including New Center Park and the Recycle Here! recycling center. This run of “Lear” will mark an unusual milestone as the company’s first performance on a traditional proscenium stage.

“Their mission is to do Shakespeare in the places where people work and play, and to bring Shakespeare to people who may not always have an opportunity to experience it,” says “Lear” director Frannie Shepherd-Bates. “It’s one thing to read it on the page, but it’s not really meant to be experienced that way. It’s meant to be seen or done.”

Shepherd-Bates has previously directed Shakespeare in another very unconventional space: the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, where she coordinates a “Shakespeare In Prison” program. She says she “wasn’t a real big fan” of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy when she read it in college. But when White asked her to direct “Lear,” Shepherd-Bates was amazed by what she found revisiting the story.

“Although it’s often portrayed as being this kind of melodrama, I don’t think it really is,” she says. “I think it’s a play about a whole bunch of people with opposing goals and desires, and the chaos that is created when they all go for it at once and when some of them don’t act at all. To me, that’s very realistic because that’s how life is.”

The show’s costume and set design will evoke a post-apocalyptic landscape. Shepherd-Bates says the production design was inspiredby Marygrove’s Tudor Gothic architecture and by the sci-fi steampunk genre that blends Industrial Revolution technology with futuristic touches.

“That really is riffing off one of the themes of the play: everything in disarray, destruction, the end of the world,” Shepherd-Bates says. “The characters reference the world coming to an end frequently, both on a large and on a small scale.”

The play’s chaos may prove surprisingly relevant to audiences. Knox says he’s noted a resurgence in the populrity of “Lear” among many theater companies. He suggests that recent political and economic instability have made the play’s “sense of impending change” more relatable than ever.

“(Lear) is the king of his world and he makes some rash decisions and the domino effects begin to create huge turmoil, although his intention was for them to do the exact opposite,” Knox says. “So the question is: Where is that responsibility? How much of this is our own doing and how much is fate?”

‘King Lear’

8 p.m. tonight-Saturday and April 18; 2 p.m. April 19

Marygrove College

8425 W. McNichols, Detroit

Tickets $20

(313) 927-1200