Arts theater review

‘Villain, I have done thy mother!’

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble brings the classic tragedy to life (or rather, to death) in ‘Queen Lear’

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Queen Lear (Grace Kuffner '20) meets with her three daughters, Goneril (Kate Yee '20), Regan (Ruth Tweedy '20) and Cordelia (Anjali Nambrath '21) where they declare their love for their mother at MIT Shakespeare Ensemble's Queen Lear March 15.

Queen Lear
Directed by Vincent Ratsavong
Performed by the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
Original Play King Lear by William Shakespeare
La Sala de Puerto Rico, Student Center
March 17–19, 22–24

A kingdom divided, three daughters estranged, and a madwoman born in the midst of it all — MIT Shakespeare Ensemble presents Queen Lear, a telling story of the titular queen’s tragic downfall after she divides her empire among two of her three daughters. Set in a cyberpunk-ish society, Shakespeare Ensemble’s Queen Lear takes the classic play (which originally featured a titular King instead of a Queen) in an eccentric, new direction, leaving the audience with haunted voices that will be echoing in our heads for days.

It’s definitely not an easy watch. Characters are sliced apart and shot dead, and one man’s eyes are gouged out. Perhaps the key to this play is its cast of complex, intricate characters. Grace Kuffner ’20, the Queen herself, reflects on her own character: “I imagine that Lear has ruled over her queendom with a firm hand for decades and has never been denied anything she asks for. Lear senses that her memory and sanity are slipping, which prompts her more than ever to cling to the things that have been constant in her life: most notably, the fact that anything she says will get done without contest.”

The other characters adorn the play with quirks of their own. Regan (Ruth Tweedy ’20), second oldest daughter of Lear, sports a seductive outfit of black leather, a crop top, fishnet stockings, and plush lips puckered with ebony lipstick. Ruth inhabits her character without restraint: “I adore playing Regan,” she says. “Playing her just feels like you're having a really great hair day and you damn well know it, but times a billion! […] There's something so liberating about portraying such a diva.”

Kudos indeed to Kristina Kim ’17 and Megan Goodell ’19 for designing the questionable fashion sense of the show — it suited the cyberpunk theme splendidly, and I enjoyed it to the brim. Regan’s older sister, Goneril (Kate Yee ’20), matches her sister’s moody style with an elegant dress in 50 shades of dark, purple fishnet, and dyed red hair. Edmund (Robert Thorpe II ’18) strides around stage in a vampiresque cloak, abs bared for all to see, before his father, the Earl of Gloucester (Peter Duerst ’18), commands him to “put on a shirt.” (He obeys, at least partially, when he reappears with a band of fishnet wrapped around his chest). Edna (Tal Scully ’18), Edmund’s guileless sister, dons the facade of a madwoman after she is banished by her father. The self-satisfied Albany (Alex Evenchik ’21), Goneril’s husband, sports a suit and tie and absurdly short jean shorts. Cornwall (Chris Balaam ’18), husband to Regan, rocks a turquoise mohawk and biker-dude outfit. The Fool (Ankur Chavda G), arguably the wisest character in the play, prances around the tragic Lear, making fun to the strum of his ukelele. He wears a tweed coat and black slacks, a stylish fedora, and shockingly bright neon-pink fishnet gloves.

I found particularly striking the scene after the Earl of Gloucester leads the raving mad Lear and his two attendants into a hovel. A burning red light gradually phases in and out within the chamber. The intermittent red casts a mood of urgency upon the huddle, evoking a feeling of entrapment. Graffiti plastered upon grungy walls melts in and out of the scene along with the red light, somber and foreboding.

We have our lights masters, Collin Fijalkovich ’19 and Cami Ramirez ’16, to thank for that. The amount of detail they put into lighting is extraordinary. Collin describes the technique behind some of the grimmer scenes of the show: “By using box boom sidelight as front lighting, shadows grow deeper, and the stage takes on a more unsettling feeling." For fight scenes, Collin and Cami chose a “strange pink and aqua color palette.” Cami explains, “Having pink lighting makes [the blood] pop more […], and having the aqua blue brings the mood back to harsh and eerie.”

The classic storm-on-the-heath scene captures the crux of the chaos that has consumed Queen Lear. She floats upon the heath, monologuing madness — she is a queen deposed, a madwoman tormented by shadows. A retinue of demons bob up and down around her, illuminating her sickly pallor with flashlights. Her broken voice peaks with emotion and falls in anguish, interspersed with crackles of techno-thunder and flashes of lightning. The whole scene gives the impression of a fiendish nightmare that persists into eternity.

It wasn’t easy to piece together that crucial scene. “There was an immense amount of designer collaboration as well as artistic and performance choices made for this scene in particular,” director Vincent Ratsavong explains. Collin also expresses his excitement about the storm-on-the-heath scene: “It was awesome to see everything come together for the first time. We've had mixed experiences trying to incorporate video into shows before, and typically the stage manager has the individual designers trigger cues simultaneously but separately. After a fair amount of wrangling with communicating between three different systems, we were actually able to get all of the cues to trigger together automatically. We all cheered when we finally got it working. Shoutout to Peter Duerst ’18 and Jakob Weisblat ’18 for heading that up.”

All in all — what a stellar performance that brought out in all its brilliance the dark and the absurd power of the Shakespearean tragedy. Shows go on this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 p.m. Don’t miss out — get your taste of the dark and grim.


Correction: In a previous version of this article, we had the wrong class year for Robert Thorpe II.