John Rensenhouse put it this way the other day: “It’s been described as a mountain impossible to climb — which I hope isn’t the case.”
Rensenhouse, a veteran Kansas City-based actor who has performed widely at regional theaters across the country, was speaking of the title role in “King Lear,” a mythical English ruler at the center of a monumental tragedy that many consider William Shakespeare’s finest.
It’s a role Rensenhouse has viewed from a distance during a distinguished career. By his count, he has been in five previous productions of the play, including a version in 2000 by the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, in which his friend and colleague Gary Neal Johnson played Lear.
Now Rensenhouse returns to the festival stage and for the first time steps into the role of an aging king whose impulsive decisions ignite a chain of treachery and violence. Ultimately, an enlightened Lear understands the tragic consequences of his choices — after it’s too late.
“It’s an honor and privilege, which for a gentleman my age, is the most iconic role,” Rensenhouse said during a media event at Southmoreland Park, the festival’s traditional home. A moment later, Rensenhouse incongruously added that playing a doomed king in his dotage was a “real treat” and that audiences would enjoy a “delightfully tragic evening.”
Artistic director Sidonie Garrett, who this year has the stage facing a slightly more northerly direction, said the park was an ideal environment for “Lear.”
“We’re in nature, and the play invokes nature,” she said. “And it’s about the natural order of things going awry. It’s arguably the greatest tragedy ever written.”
Rensenhouse said this show will be his 16th production with the festival, where audiences have seen him play the title roles in “Julius Caesar,” “Macbeth” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”
In a subsequent interview, Rensenhouse said he and Garrett had periodically discussed the possibility of tackling “Lear.”
“We decided that it would be appropriate to wait until I turned 60, which I did this year,” he said.
Rensenhouse has always stayed in good physical condition, which points to one of the challenges of the role. You could never cast an actor close to Lear’s age because it’s one of the most physically and emotionally demanding roles in all of Shakespeare.
“It refers to him as being ‘four score and some,’ which would be 80-plus,” Rensenhouse said. “We have cut that line … but that is the intent of the author.”
Still, he said the show can be grueling, even for a physically fit 60-year-old.
“It is a bear,” he said. “I knew all that intellectually going in, but once we started rehearsing I was genuinely taken aback by how exhausted I would be by the end of rehearsals. I made it through the first run-through but, boy, I was exhausted. And now we’ve moved outdoors and it’s 90 degrees and, ‘Oh dear, what have I done?’”
But Rensenhouse isn’t going it alone. Garrett has surrounded him with an impressive cast that on paper is the one of the strongest — if not the strongest — she has ever assembled. Goneril and Regan, Lear’s two treacherous daughters, are played by festival veterans Kim Martin-Cotten and Cinnamon Schultz.
Martin-Cotten played Cleopatra to Rensenhouse’s Antony at the festival and also performed opposite him as Lady Macbeth. Martin-Cotten also played Goneril in productions of “King Lear” with Stacy Keach in the lead in Chicago (2006) and Washington (2009). (Gary Neal Johnson, by the way, understudied Keach in those productions.)
Emily Peterson appears as Cordelia, Lear’s virtuous daughter. Mark Robbins, another experienced festival player, is the Earl of Gloucester, one of Lear’s supporters, who has two sons — the legitimate Edgar (Jacques Roy) and the bastard Edmund (Kyle Hatley). Phil Fiorini plays the Fool, the only character who speaks truth to the king.
Brian Paulette will immerse himself in the role of the sadistic Cornwall, husband to Regan. And Matthew Rapport plays Kent, Lear’s banished ally, who dons a disguise as part of an effort to make things right. Supporting roles are filled by younger but experienced performers based or formerly based in Kansas City.
In “Lear” Shakespeare creates two storylines that merge catastrophically. One is the story of Lear, the aging king who has decided to divide his kingdom into thirds — one for each of his daughters — so that he can essentially enjoy his retirement. He’ll retain his crown and his retinue of knights but devote his life to pleasure.
“I’m going to behave as though as I’m king but I’m not going to do any of the work,” is how Rensenhouse put it. “He’s gonna sit back with his posse and hunt and fish and have a good time.”
All he wants is an expression of devotion from each of his daughters. Goneril and Regan, two of Shakespeare’s most memorable villains, flatter the old man by voicing lavish praise and affection. The youngest, Cordelia, demurs, telling her father that he already knows how much she loves him and that mouthing platitudes won’t make it more so. Lear, his vanity wounded, flies into a rage and banishes Cordelia, who had been his favorite.
In the parallel, Gloucester misjudges his sons as badly as Lear misjudges his daughters. The honorable Edgar is banished to the wilderness, thanks to Edmund’s treachery. Ultimately, Edgar returns and the brothers face each other in trial by combat.
Rensenhouse posited that the play’s depiction of treachery and manipulation may find a more sympathetic audience than perhaps it once did.
“This is the sixth production of ‘King Lear’ I’ve been in and … all of them have been really appreciated by the audiences, which gets to ‘King Lear’ being the tragedy of our time,” he said. “The unrelentingly bleak view of the world this play represents is better appreciated by modern audiences.”
The reason, he said, is simply the relentless bombardment of information and images about corruption, war, atrocities and man’s inhumanity to man, which can be avoided only by people without computers, smartphones or cable TV.
“One of the productions I was in was at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park in 2001, in September, during 9/11,” he said. “We canceled the performance but returned the next night. The resonance was quite profound and that ended up being a really meaningful production for audiences at that time. It was great to have been with that play and being soothed, somehow, by the poetry of it in contrast to the reality we were living through.”
On a recent steamy afternoon, Roy and Hatley took to the stage in Southmoreland Park to provide a basic run-through of the climactic sword fight between Edgar and Edmund. There was a lot of grunting, a few well-placed “arghs,” punches to the head, punches to the gut, kicks to the ribs, at least one head butt and moves that brought to mind ballet and pro wrestling.
Roy, who is also the show’s fight director, said he and Garrett hope to create a world where the threat of violence is omnipresent.
“There are a number of places where violence is not specifically called for in the script that we have sort of expanded and taken advantage of the fact that Sid has chosen to place this in a world that is not a gentle place, a world where the strictures of society are falling to pieces and rules don’t apply anymore and violence comes up early and often,” Roy said.
The cast this year happens to include two married couples and another to be married soon. Roy and Martin-Cotten are spouses, as are Schultz and Paulette. And Hatley and Peterson are engaged. It’s an interesting footnote to a show about families.
Not that this is a case of art mirroring reality. The families in “Lear” are spectacularly dysfunctional.
Hatley summed it up this way: “It does the thing that any family drama does: It ends in blood.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765.
“King Lear” runs through July 5 (including July 4) in Southmoreland Park, between Oak and Warwick streets west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The festival is free, although donations will be requested. Gates open at 6 p.m., and each performance begins at 8 p.m. Reserved seating information is at 816-531-7728 or kcshakes.org.