The Bard: coming to a computer screen near you: Chester Theatre Company stages a virtual “King Lear”

  • New York-based actor Michael Potts will play the tortured monarch in Chester Theatre Company’s virtual production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Photo courtesy of Michael Potts

  • Tara Franklin, a veteran of several Chester Theatre productions, plays two of King Lear’s daughters, Goneril and Regan, in the upcoming production. Photo courtesy of Tara Franklin

  • Shelley Fort plays Cordelia, King Lear’s youngest daughter, and the The Fool, a protector — though an ironic one — of the king. Photo courtesy of Shelley Fort

  • Chester Theatre Company veteran James Barry will portray two half-brothers, Edmund and Edgar, in the upcoming production of “King Lear.” Photo courtesy of James Barry

  • Shakespeare via Zoom: the four actors of Chester Theatre’s “King Lear” are shown in a recent virtual rehearsal. Photo courtesy Chester Theatre Company

  • Circa 1851 painting by William Dyce of a scene from “King Lear,” featuring The Fool and the king. National Galleries of Scotland/publid domain

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 2020

As Daniel Elihu Kramer sees it, “King Lear” is a pretty topical play for the age of COVID-19. Shakespeare’s epic tragedy offers a critical look at the complex ties of family and how suffering and raw emotions can quickly wrench seemingly content people — and life itself — apart.

But given how the pandemic has thrown much of the world into chaos and uncertainty over the last several months, Kramer, the producing artistic director of Chester Theatre Company, also sees “King Lear” as a vehicle for his company to make some headway against that turmoil.

To do that, Chester Theatre is staging its first-ever virtual performance, a Zoom-based adaptation of “King Lear” that Kramer has arranged to be screened on YouTube between Aug. 27-30. The show will be free, though viewers will be asked to consider making a donation to the theater.

And after the company’s summer 2020 season was wiped out by the coronavirus, Kramer sees this virtual play — staged with four actors working from their homes in New York, Los Angeles and Williamstown — as a breath of fresh air.

“It’s been a joy to do this after everything that’s happened over the last several months,” he said. “We’re trying to be a little playful and have some fun with the format, not be prisoners of it.”

That said, Kramer points to the last lines of “King Lear,” a drama in which murder, suicide, greed and madness abound, as an apt summation of this strange moment of history.

As The Bard wrote, “The weight of this sad time we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most; we that are young, / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

Chester Theatre’s approximately 50-minute production will feature New York-based actor Michael Potts as King Lear. Potts, who’s been in a number of Broadway productions and in TV series such as “The Wire,” will also appear in an upcoming film adaptation of the August Wilson play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Kramer got to know Potts when the two were students at Yale University’s School of Drama, and he previously tried to enlist him for a few Chester Theatre productions. “In normal times, he’s hard to get a hold of, but like a lot of us today, Michael’s looking for things to do,” he noted. “We’re thrilled to have him now.”

Like the three other actors in the production — James Barry and Tara Franklin of Williamstown and Shelley Fort of Los Angeles — Potts will play two major roles. Aside from his stint as King Lear, Potts will also portray the Earl of Gloucester; in one scene, the two characters encounter each other.

“That’s a good example of how we can be playful with this format,” said Kramer. “People will be able to see two Michael Potts on the screen at the same time.”

Zoom time

Planning and then rehearsals for the virtual “King Lear” began last month and have been aided by two Smith College interns, Clarissa Po and Madison VanDeurzen. All the work has been done remotely, which imposes certain limitations, Kramer notes, as one can stare at a computer screen for only so much time.

“When you’re rehearsing [theater] live, you’re typically doing five to seven hours a day,” he said. “With Zoom, it’s two hours maximum.”

Using Zoom also means rearranging the way you present a play, and shortening it as well. For this “King Lear,” some minor characters have been removed from the production, and other parts of the play will be presented as narrative rather than drama, with one of the characters at a time relaying the story, based on a script written by Kramer.

“With that kind of storytelling, it brings in an aspect of a radio play, except you can see that narrator on your screen,” said Kramer.

For the “set,” Kramer worked with his Smith College colleague Ed Check, who teaches production design and does regular design work for theater in the Valley. The actors have been sent different-colored fabric to use as backdrops for their Zoom presentations, and the actors will use complementary colors for their on-screen wardrobes.

Barry, Franklin and Fort are all veterans of past Chester Theatre productions — Franklin is also the company’s associate artistic director and director of education — and Kramer says having them aboard for the show has been a big morale boost for him personally.

“Given how isolated we’ve all been, just to have this opportunity to connect with people has been great,” he said. And, he noted, there’s a certain intimacy generated by a Zoom-based play, with the camera focusing on people’s faces rather than their whole bodies.

Chester Theatre might have to do more Zoom-based performances in the future. Planning for next summer’s productions remains completely up in the air, Kramer noted, given there’s no way of knowing when the pandemic will abate enough to allow live plays to be staged. His gut feeling is that summer 2021 will also prove problematic “though I’ll be thrilled to be proved wrong.”

One possibility, he notes, might be to do outside performances next summer if Chester Theatre can forge a partnership with another venue or theater company. “Nothing’s off the table,” he said.

For the meantime, the company will continue to offer online content, such as discussions with actors and directors. “Obviously we hope we can be back live next summer,” Kramer added.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. For more information on the production of “King Lear,” visit chestertheatre.org. The first presentation takes place Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.; other viewings will be available Aug. 28 to Aug. 30.