It doesn't take long for Cait Bodenbender, in the Prenzie Players' Lear, to prove that director/adapter J.C. Luxton's idea to reverse his characters' genders was a great one.
Bodenbender's Queen Lear, in the first act, has her authoritative presence furthered by the alto tones of her booming voice. This is a woman clearly in charge as she divvies up her kingdom amongst her sons: Cole McFarren's convincingly sincere Prince Goneril, Jarrod DeRooi's conniving dandy Prince Regan, and Andrew Bruning's confident, regal Prince Cordelia, whose speech of expressed love for his mother is mistaken by the queen, and he is denied any land to rule. (This scene unfolds with even more drama thanks to Tyson Danner's lighting design, which includes a large map projected onto the floor in the midst of deep shadows, creating an ominous air.)
If the first act of Shakespeare's tragedy wasn't enough to convince Friday's audience that Bodenbender's casting was justified, her second act certainly did the trick; as Lear descends into rage-fueled madness, Bodenbender unleashes her queen's inner turmoil with fearsome abandon. The way she runs about the stage (which is set up in the middle of the playing space, with the audience seated along two-and-a-half sides of it), and around the audience, had me on edge with nervousness - especially when, at one point, she shrieks and lifts up her burlap sack of a dress. Once again, Danner's lighting punctuates this scene, supporting Bodenbender's tumultuously physical and vocal wrath with flashes of painfully piercing white light, representing the storm during which Lear rants about the ungratefulness of sons Goneril and Regan after their true natures and lack of love are revealed. (Maggie Woolley impressively matches Bodenbender's madness while scantily clad as Edgar, particularly following his disinheritance from his mother, Jen Brown's stately Countess of Gloucester.)
In addition to portraying Cordelia, the son that truly loves Lear most, Bruning also plays the queen's fool, altering his baritone voice to a higher-pitched, lighter cadence for Shakespeare's clown. (Personally speaking, it's actually Luxton's portrayal of the fool in Genesius Guild's 1996 presentation of King Lear that may forever be my benchmark for the role; his remarkable performance is inked indelibly in my mind.) Bruning attacks the role with a sharp silliness and clear baseness, enhanced by costume designer Kate Farence's inclusion of a purple dildo attached at his waist. As I listened to Bruning deliver his barbs at Lear during his initial scene, I pondered how the fool seems a lot like a drag queen, what with Bruning's foppish approach to the role and the humorously stinging jabs he takes at the royal. And Luxton seems to have thought the same thing, as Bruning appears in the next act dressed in a purple wig and an outfit in the style of a jester's costume. (The drag-queening of Bruning's character appears to be how Luxton gender-bends this role, as his fool is played by a male, as is customary.)
The decision to make female the character of Edmund - now a bastard daughter with potential claims to Lear's land - is much more clearly presented. At one point, Stephanie Burrough enters the stage in nothing but a towel, as if fresh from a shower. And when Edmund describes herself with, "When my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous, and my shape as true ...", there's something about Burrough's confidence, the pools of dim light in which she stands, and the placement of a couple of mirrors at the edges of the performance space that transforms the scene from perceived gratuitousness to art, as if we were watching a living sculpture.
Costumer Farence's finest work, in my estimation, lies in the ensemble Denise Yoder wears as the Countess of Kent prior to being banished by Lear. Her floor-length, purple, velvet gown with draped collar is accented with a sword belt and gray bolero jacket that's modern in material and cut. The apparel manages to blend period and present-day styles as well as masculine and feminine looks, creating a physical embodiment of Luxton's decision to mix up the genders in his play. And on the opposite end of such beauty is the grotesque way in which Luxton depicts the removal of Gloucester's eyes at the hands of Prince Regan and his wife, Beth Woolley's commanding, subversively evil Duchess of Hinnine of Cornwall. As Cornwall gouges out Gloucester's orbs, Woolley releases squirts of red that spray out from, and run down, Brown's face, and the moment is effectively repulsive - as are whatever items were used to create the eyeballs which end up on the stage floor (and which, unfortunately, remained there through the rest of Friday's presentation).
Unremoved props aside, there's not much else I disliked - if there was anything else I disliked - about the Prenzie Players' Lear. Luxton's production is like no other presentation of Shakespeare's masterpiece I've seen (this being my third), and not only for his choice to swap genders. While well acted by the entire cast, it's the aforementioned touches that will leave their marks on me, making this my new favorite presentation of the King Lear material.
Lear runs at the QC Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport) through April 12, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)278-8426 or visiting PrenziePlayers.com.