King Lear

A soft, subtle spotlight follows Lear everywhere she goes in BYU’s production of “King Lear.” It is a literal reminder that Barta Heiner, who plays Lear, is outshining everyone around her.

Her co-stars, most of them very good college actors, are still a few decades behind her in terms of experience, and the contrast is stark. (And a few of them, in the smaller roles, are actually rather bad.)

King Lear is supposed to be a man, of course. The printed program observes that Queen Elizabeth I often used male terms to refer to herself, thus justifying the switch. The casting of Heiner probably owes more to BYU’s notorious shortage of male actors than to a fondness for theatrical experimentation, but regardless of what inspired it, the decision turns out to have been a reasonable one. The setting is a wrecked, post-apocalyptic world — gorgeously realized by Doug Ellis’ set and Mary Farahnakian’s costumes — and Heiner superbly fills the role of a struggling monarch in a difficult time. She rages, commands, laughs and weeps with startling power. I hope she will take it as a compliment that in terms of old women descending into grief and madness, she is the best.

Lear’s evil daughters Goneril and Regan are played with poison and acrimony by Eve Speer and Kris Jennings. The good daughter, Cordelia, is Cyndi Ball Selim, and it is comforting to see that despite the onset of the apocalypse, there are still crimping irons to be found.

Among the men, the standout is Cameron Hopkin as Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester. This is among Shakespeare’s most fun villains, and Hopkin drips with conniving duplicity.

As Gloucester, Jon Liddiard is believable and at times gravely sympathetic. It’s unfortunate, though, that the lesson of “Three Sisters,” in which the slender Liddiard was ill-advisedly made to look portly, was not learned. He looked silly then, and he looks silly again now, in another chubby shirt.

Director Rodger Sorensen keeps things moving at a brisk pace, and the show barely feels like the 2 1/2 hours it occupies. But it is often hard to follow — the curse of performing Shakespeare for a modern-speaking audience. Passionate though the actors are, they do not always convey their meanings adequately. Intermission Saturday night was filled with audience members attempting to explain to one another what was going on. Barring any particular dumbness on the part of the audience that night, this can only be seen as a weakness in the production.

More troublesome, though, is the lack of emotional connection. Aside from a nice moment between Lear and Cordelia, and another one between Gloucester and his good son Edgar (Peter Biggs), there is little evidence that any characters even know the others, let alone relate to them. It’s as if a group of strangers showed up and began shouting and killing, all the while trying to convince us they’ve known each other for years. “King Lear” ought to add up to more than this.

Should you go? I cannot recommend the whole thing, but Barta Heiner’s performance is very good.

Going into it, I thought the element I would have the most trouble with would be the gender-backward casting of the title role. As it turns out, Barta was the best thing about the production.