The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane
7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., May 28-30; 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 31; through June 13
Tulane University, Lupin Theatre, 865-5105 ext. 2
Tickets $25 general admission, $22 students, $12.50 children.
Two years ago, Jim Fitzmorris presented a staged reading of Vote Lear: A Theatrical Manifesto at the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. He developed the play from discussions with Ron Gural, the festival's artistic director, and Rebecca Frank, an adjunct teacher in Tulane's theater department and longtime company member at the festival. They tried to picture what King Lear would look like set in New Orleans. Fitzmorris was drawn to the epic tragedy, struck that the play's tumultuous storm, which disrupts the kingdom, suited the lead up to and aftermath of Hurricane Betsy (1965).
"In a production like this, you slowly have the clouds and the gathering storm," Fitzmorris says. "There's an awful moment when they realize the storm will leave many people without homes. Lear realizes that with all of the politics, he has left his people unprepared."
Fitzmorris has applied many of those ideas to directing this production of King Lear, which is faithful to Shakespeare's language but is set in 1960s New Orleans. There's the gruesomeness of the play's famous eye-gauging scene as well as some New Orleans-style gunplay and political scheming. The backroom dealing and power games of modern politics are not different from the plotting and alliances of Lear's England, Fitzmorris says.
Lear kicks off the 16th season of the Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. (Opening night is Saturday, following two days of previews.) For the two mainstage productions, Fitzmorris chose a tragedy and comedy marked by themes of mistaken identity.
"If you look at Comedy of Errors and King Lear, nobody is who they seem to be at first," he says. "In Lear, he makes a terrible mistake in the beginning when he misreads everyone, because he has misread himself."
In Shakespeare's comedies, resolving the mistaken identities brings resolution. In Lear, the outcome is far more ominous.
"I'll never get over the last line," Fiztmorris says. "'Is this the promised end?' It's horrible, and it's terrific."
He also has added a touch of wicked humor. When Lear emerges after the storm to survey the wreckage, he walks upon a familiar face from the wreckage of the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park.
The production stars Gural as King Lear and Frank as Goneril, one of Lear's scheming daughters. Appearing in his first production with the festival, Harold X. Evans plays the Fool — Lear's driver.
The season includes The Comedy of Errors (June 25-July 11), which will be set in New Orleans in the 1750s. Much Ado About Nothing (July 22-25) will be performed by the festival's summer class of high school drama students. The final piece is an original work by recent Tulane graduate Helen Jaksch titled Fighting with Two Hands (July 16-18).