Any respectable town that prides itself on its artistic capabilities must possess a world-class Shakespeare troupe. For State College, that’s the Nittany Valley Shakespeare Company, which will perform the famed tragedy “King Lear” at the State Theatre.
Updated and set in modern-day Africa, the NVSC’s take on “King Lear” has been more than two years in the making. Recently retired Penn State School of Theater professor Charles Dumas will direct the show and portray the title character in a show that was put on hold because of various health issues among members of the company.
Dumas said the play’s themes resonate strongly with him, adding that the time is right to perform such an iconic piece of theater.
“This seemed to be an ideal time to do ‘King Lear,’ ” Dumas said. “Having recently retired and been named professor emeritus, it coincides with Lear giving up his power while trying to maintain authority, which is typical of people in our position and time of life.”
It’s the play’s ability to reverberate over centuries and through cultural and language barriers that makes Bard of Avon’s legacy so powerful and timeless.
“The themes of palace intrigue, desperate struggles for power and attempts at interpersonal manipulation feel as if they were snatched off of the evening news,” Dumas said.
“Shakespeare had a great talent for injecting deep observations on life and human nature into the fabric of the play, using gorgeous language to set little jewels into the setting of a scene that is completely intrinsic to the dramatic rhythm of the moment,” said Lloyd Short, who plays the Earl of Gloucester. “This play is complex and intense, and the relationships among the characters are subtle. It’s a wonderful challenge for an actor and the process is enjoyable, but it isn’t easy.”
Being cast as a major player in a Shakespearean play often is the pinnacle in the career of many actors. However, the preparation process is quite arduous.
“There is a lot of work to understand what’s going on, and repetition, repetition, repetition to get the lines into your soul,” Short said. “Shakespeare, though, because of the language and the difference in time and circumstance, requires more work in understanding what’s happening, and even more repetition to absorb the archaic language and make it yours. An important part of the preparation is creating relationships among the characters.”
With a storied career writing and performing on stage and screen in addition to time he spent in the classroom as an educator, Dumas has a colorful litany of experience that he can draw from; he is not afraid to take chances and cut out frills.
“The production is a very intimate look at some very interesting characters who may seem unusually familiar,” Dumas said. “Except for the exciting and eclectic African and military costumes drawn from authentic, modern Africa, we have eliminated most of the bells and whistles often found in Shakespearean productions. We take our cue from the New York Shakespeare in the Park with John Lithgow, performed on a bare, unadorned stage, where the story is carried out by actors telling it to each other and to the audience. The simplicity of the production helped the focus remain on the story and relationship between people.”
While “King Lear” certainly isn’t one of Shakespeare’s forgotten plays, some would argue that it isn’t one of his most easily recognizable works, either. The Nittany Valley Shakespeare Company has the tools and the talent to assure that audiences leave the State Theatre this weekend with the same sort of awe that washed over crowds leaving the Globe centuries ago.
“I believe that this production will be very accessible to audiences,” Dumas said. “The emphasis is on the language being used to communicate, not the poetry, which often sounds good but says little.”
“We are not only tapping into the talent emanating from the university and all the advantages it brings with its cadre of talented actors and designers from PSU’s amazing theatre program, but also our own community of talent, which really is a melting pot of rich and varied experiences. That local group of talent is what has enabled us to be where we are today,” said Susan Riddiford Shedd, the NVSC’s artistic director.