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'King Lear' in OSF's Thomas Theatre

When the aging King Lear decides to divide his realm among his three daughters, he devises to leave the largest portion to the child who loves him the most. Self-righteous, imperious and obstinate, Lear is duped by flattery, and his misguided plan leads to chaos and his descent into madness.

Bill Rauch, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has taken on a new production of Shakespeare's tragedy set to open in the Thomas Theatre.

"It's contemporary with an iconic, timeless feel," Rauch says.

This "King Lear" is part of Shakespeare for a New Generation, a national theater initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in cooperation with Arts Midwest. The program is designed to introduce students to the magic of live theater and, especially, to Shakespeare. Participating theater companies receive matching grants from NEA to support discussion groups and workshops for middle- and high-school students.

"It is vitally important for students to see these new productions," Rauch says. "While the language of the play is the same, it is our responsibility to present the story to them with clarity and vigor. It becomes starkly direct and very contemporary because of the passion of the actors."

"King Lear" previews at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, opens at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, and runs through Nov. 3 in OSF's Thomas Theatre

Rauch cast two OSF actors, Michael Winters and Jack Willis, to alternate performances in the role of King Lear. It was a decision based on the intensity of the role and the length of the run.

"We go from February into November," Rauch says. "It is 130 performances of one of the most demanding roles in all theater," Rauch says.

He soon discovered that the two actors brought different interpretations to the role.

"I knew two actors would have different approaches to the role, but they were more different than I expected. Using two actors really shows how much of the role rests upon the individual actor, how they hear the dialogue and view the action."

Rauch hopes that audiences will take opportunities to see both actors.

"It is an artistic experiment," he says. "In fact, there is one scene where we've staged the action completely differently for each actor."

The rest of the cast remains the same in all of the performances. Cordelia will be played by OSF newcomer Sofia Jean Gomez. Goneril is played by Vilma Silva, and Regan by Robin Goodrin Nordli. Armando Duran plays Kent; Richard Elmore is Gloucester; Raffi Barsoumian is Edmond; and Benjamin Pelteson is Edgar. Daisuke Tsuji plays the Fool.

"The intensity of the story is heightened by the intimacy of the Thomas Theatre," Rauch says. "The audience is so much more a part of the action."

Although he has directed Shakespeare often, this is Rauch's first "King Lear."

"I was struck by how the theme of seeing is expressed by the metaphor of light, how it flows through the play," Rauch says.

To enhance this idea, scenic designer Christopher Acebo and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind have used many sources of light onstage.

"We have candlelight, firelight, a television screen, even a spotlight on a security wall," Rauch says.

Costume design is by Linda Roethke. Sound design is by composer Andre J. Pluess.

See www.osfashland.org or call 541-482-4331 for showtimes and ticket information.

Lear (Michael Winters) thinks the only person loyal to him is his Fool (Daisuke Tsuji) in OSF's contemporary production of 'King Lear.' - Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham