Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

King Lear
St. Louis Shakespeare Festival
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Feast

André De Shields, Nicole King, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography
There's something miraculous about being back in a sprawling theatrical setting after more than a year of pandemic isolation. And the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's King Lear glows under the moon with André De Shields as its star, pulling the epic tale along behind him like a red-hot locomotive engine with a hundred rattling cars in tow. The show is free (but reservations are required) and clocks in at nearly three hours' runtime. But Mr. De Shields hands out so much commanding richness, with many laughs—and also a kind of tragedy that comes from a very dark and lonely place. So it all flies by.

That early, emblematic scene where Lear seeks to divide up his (African) nation into thirds for his daughters has the faint psychological ring of "RuPaul's Drag Race" to it, where Goneril (Rayme Cornell, here both contemptuous and proud), Regan (a plain-spoken but deceived Jacqueline Thompson), and Cordelia (infinitely peaceful Nicole King) must "lip-synch for their lives." Or, in this case, put on a show of love and praise for a vain old man. It's the only time director Carl Cofield seems to allow pop culture to curdle his production, for storytelling purposes. I'm not counting the "drag dressing room" type of moments, where the sisters still lash out at one another, or the delightfully modern ad-lib comedy of Alan Gilmore as a great Fool, because the rest of the story unfolds naturally and spontaneously, and with great clarity. And since King Lear predates RuPaul by about 400 years, who is imitating whom?

Even when all is lost, like bandleader Cab Calloway, Mr. De Shields exhorts the crowd to rousing heights, demanding one more moment of royal dignity. It's usually funny. And even when it's not, in the half-dozen times he's led away, mumbling in solitary disgrace, we gain an entirely different sense of entertainment: feeling the whole story might just be playing out in his cobwebbed memory, in the hall of some shabby rest home. In recent memory, there is no greater sense of despair than Mr. De Shields, deflated.

For the sake of comparison, Hamlet seems like a young man's nightmare of misplaced trust and of Freudian horror. Lear is the perfect bookend for that, coming at the end of another man's life, when all his social capital is squandered, and a handful of much younger men and women are left to scramble for power and survival in the ruins of the kingdom. A tiny band of loyal friends sustains the foolish king. Brian Anthony Wilson is excellent as Gloucester, Mr. Gilmore gets a lot of laughs as the Fool, and J. Samuel Davis is gracious and warm (and funny) as Kent. Shakespeare's revolving door of dukes in and out of favor spins briskly once more, and dignity hangs askew.

Edmund and Edgar, the two sons of Gloucester, are beautifully played by Leland Fowler and Daniel José Molina, building to the requisite knife fight in act five. It's quick, as choreographed by Rick Sordelet, but bristles with as many as six swords and knives. That's set up by Edmund's cringe-inducing duplicity—and all the great, contrary love and wit shown by Edgar. It's a long show, but it never loses its drive. Everything that's lost by Lear (the love and honor and trust) forges itself into his own invisible cage. And no man—young or old—would ever wish to be locked up inside of that.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival's King Lear runs through June 27, 2021, at Shakespeare Glen, between the St. Louis Art Museum and the Children's Zoo. Free to the public, but reservations are required. And bring a sweater or coat; the breeze off the vast reflecting pool nearby grows surprisingly chilly after dark, even in summer. For more information visit

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Goneril: Rayme Cornell*
Kent: J. Samuel Davis*
King Lear: André de Shields
Edmund: Leland Fowler*
Fool: Allen Gilmore*
Supporting Cast: Kentrell Jamison
Drummer: Atum Jones
Cordelia: Nicole King*
Albany: Jason J. Little
Supporting Cast: Theorri London
Supporting Cast: Brian McKinley
Edgar: Daniel José Molina*
Cornwall/Gentleman: Carl Overly, Jr.
Regan: Jacqueline Thompson*
Oswald/France: Michael Tran
Supporting Cast: Tyler White
Gloucester: Brian Anthony Wilson*
Supporting Cast: Christina Yancy

Artistic Staff:
Director: Carl Cofield
Casting Director: Laura Stanczyk
Assistant Director: Sam Hayes
Stage Manager: Emilee Buchheit*
Assistant Stage Manager: Emily Clinger*
Sound Design: David Molina
Percussion Director: Atum Jones
Scenic Design: Wilson Chin
Costume Design: Mika Eubanks
Lighting Design: John Wylie
Fight Choreographer: Rick Sordelet
Props Master: Laura Skroska

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association