The talented young Shakespeareans who call themselves The Porters Of Hellsgate have scored a major casting coup in bringing onboard stage-and-screen vets Larry Cedar and Leon Russom for their most ambitious production to date, the epic tragedy King Lear.

418014_4511868787484_1788146206_n Considered by many to be Shakespeare’s masterpiece, King Lear could well have inspired sayings in the vein of “There’s nothing worse/more bitter/more disturbing/viler than an ungrateful child.” Those familiar with its twists and turns will need no reminding that King Lear centers on an aged monarch and his three adult daughters (two evil, one good). The uninitiated would do well to read (and even reread) the synopsis featured in the program, as the play’s complex story lines may leave those less attuned to Shakespearean verse scratching their heads, particularly during the play’s midsection.

Truth be told, with its preponderance of unsympathetic characters and three-plus-hour running time, King Lear is not one of this reviewer’s favorite Shakespeare plays. Fortunately, director Thomas Bigley keeps the staging varied and the pace swift, the entire production clocking in a good twenty minutes shorter than the Antaeus Company’s several years back.

Porters Of Hellsgate fans will be pleased to recognize many of the players from previous productions, a troupe of mostly 20somethings opposite whom Cedar cuts a dramatic, charismatic figure in what is one of this L.A. theater staple’s standout performances. Already the winner of two Best Actor Scenies for his work in Colony Theatre productions, each of which had him bringing to life multiple roles, Cedar makes Lear very much his own creation, from the King’s initial arrogance (and blindness to his older daughters’ duplicity) to the insanity into which His Majesty soon descends. Not surprisingly, Cedar’s mad scenes are among the production’s most compelling and the actor’s career best.

293677_4515904688379_923037688_n Russom’s résumé goes back even farther than Cedar’s (boomers may recall his ‘70s soap star status), and his performance as the aged Gloucester is never anything less than riveting, particularly when blinded and bedraggled, he becomes the victim of a son even more ungrateful and scheming than Lear’s daughters.

Next to such stage superstars, the inexperience of some company members does become apparent, though there is fine work being done by Porters regulars Kate O’Toole and Dana DeRuyck (deliciously conniving as Lear’s evil eldest), Alex Parker (a suavely villainous Edmund), Sean Faye (a dynamic Albany), and Jamey Hecht (a richly layered Kent).

The always watchable Gus Krieger brings his trademark brand of quirkiness to Edgar, most notably when Gloucester’s legitimate son disguises himself as the madman Tom o’ Bedlam, though clearer diction and higher volume would make his performance even stronger.

I especially liked Jo D. Jonz’s take on The Fool (think Ben Vareen in Pippin’s Leading Player mode), and Scenie winner Kevin Stidham is once again so watchable that I couldn’t help wishing Cornwall had more stage time. (Kudos too to Stidham’s spot-on American accent, a perfect match to the rest of the cast’s native speech patterns.)

196887_4515902968336_233331_n Completing the company of players are Christina MacKinnon (Cordelia), Jesse James Thomas (Oswald), Timothy Portnoy (France), Hilary Schwartz (Nurse), and Michael Bigley.

A number of cast members appear in additional roles, though more could be done to clarify which part the performer is playing. In particular, Hecht’s full beard necessitates greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief when his Kent “disguises” himself as “Caius” and is supposedly unrecognizable, i.e. more is needed than a costume change.

582414_4515903048338_1733347812_n Taylor Fisher’s bare-bones but effective scenic design consists of three tall panels on rollers, rearranged for each new scene, and though some of the configurations suggest specific settings, the conceit works best simply in clarifying a move to a new locale. A present day time frame gives costumer Jessica Pasternak less to dazzle us with than in she did in, say, the 1960s-set The Merchant Of Venice, though her designs are once again fine ones. Sterling Hall merits high marks for his striking lighting design, as does Nick Neidorf for his dramatic original score and sound design, though the decision to have the cast “Foley” an extended rain sequence proves more distracting than effective, with the exception of when the players/Foley artists appear onstage during Cedar’s magnificent mad soliloquy. Fight choreographer Charles Pasternak has staged some exciting, thrillingly performed swordplay. Cast member Thomas is fight captain. Neidorf is propmaster as well. Michael Hoag is stage manager.

602967_4511868747483_722450590_n The Porters Of Hellsgate have come a long way since a trio of Palisades High School students (Pasternak, Edward Castuera, and Jack Leahy) decided to create an acting company with the goal of producing the entire Shakespearean canon. Though the troupe’s crowning achievement may still be yet to come, these young Porters have much to be proud of this largely successful production of one of Shakespeare’s most daunting works.

Studio/Stage, 520 North Western Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
January 4, 2012

Comments are closed.