Review: Cal Shakes’ dazzling new ‘Lear,’ set in the ’60s Fillmore District, takes the tragedy to another level

Everyone knows King Lear, the volatile monarch who tries to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and loses it all in the process.

But seeing “Lear,” Marcus Gardley’s bold new adaptation of Shakespeare’s monumental tragedy, is enough to make you wonder whether you’ve ever really grasped the full impact of the original play.

Gardley lops off the “King” designation, retelling the story of the flawed title character in bracing contemporary terms, taking it out of the distant past and bringing it into the here and now.

Well, definitely the here, and almost the now. In its world premiere production at the California Shakespeare Theater, which opened Wednesday at the company’s Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, this “Lear” is set in San Francisco’s Fillmore District during the 1960s, a heyday for Black art, music and culture, but also a time when Black displacement was draining the lifeblood of neighborhoods throughout the region.

Lear’s (James A. Williams) descent into madness is artfully calibrated in Marcus Gardley’s new take on the Shakespeare tragedy, which he sets in San Francisco’s 1960s Fillmore District. (Photo courtesy Kevin Berne)

Gardley, an Obie-winning playwright and an Oakland native, knows both the region and Shakespeare’s play, and what he’s created in this sprawling hybrid is nothing short of dazzling. This is “King Lear,” to be sure, but with a contemporary, eyes-wide-open point of view: Like in his earlier plays, including the widely acclaimed “black odyssey,” Gardley writes the way we talk, with a deep understanding of character, language and history that resonates throughout the production.

Beautifully co-directed by Cal Shakes artistic director Eric Ting and Aurora Theatre Company’s associate artistic director Dawn Monique Williams, the sprawling three-hour, fifteen-minute production is often hilarious and ultimately deeply moving. Presented in partnership with the Oakland Theater Project and Play On Shakespeare, it’s a final triumph for Ting, who has announced that he’s leaving the company to relocate to New York.

Ting and Williams bring the play to life on multiple playing areas across the Bruns stage and throughout the multilevel San Francisco house that is the central feature of Tanya Orellana’s set design (artfully illuminated by Scott Bolman); the action often spills off the stage, with actors moving through the audience for entrances and exits. The production is dynamically paced, and music plays an essential part, with one of the house’s upstairs rooms occupied by composer-bassist Marcus Shelby and trombonist Scott Larson; their solos and duets supply the performance with a steady pulse.

Gardley’s script, like Shakespeare’s, is both humane and deeply poetic, and the Cal Shakes cast embodies it with thrilling intensity. This “Lear” is strongest where it counts, with James A. Williams in the title role of the imperious patriarch. Williams plays the part with power, intelligence and emotional clarity; he’s always attuned to the grasping machinations of the rapacious characters around him, and his command of Shakespeare’s language is complete. One word, a look or a single long breath from this actor expresses a lifetime, and his descent into madness is artfully calibrated.

In tune with Shelby’s music, the characters’ inner thoughts often come across like jazz riffs, with a winning mix of humor and menace expressed. Jomar Tagatac gives an intensely revealing performance as the evil Edmund, and Lear’s scheming daughters — Emma Van Lare’s Regan and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong’s Goneril — seethe with desire and murderous intent. Sam Jackson does a deft double-turn as Cordelia and Shakespeare’s Fool, here named the Comic. Dane Troy is an eloquent Edgar, and Cathleen Riddley is the picture of loyalty as Kent. Velina Brown, looking sensational in a long white gown (Lux Haac did the costumes) and perched above the main stage for much of the production, sings a series of soulful jazz tunes as the Black Queen. Michael J. Asberry’s Gloucester, Dov Hassan’s Cornwall and Kenny Scott’s Albany round out the cast.

Every “King Lear” examines ideas of identity, aging and legacy. But Gardley’s “Lear” takes Shakespeare’s themes one step further. In his adaptation, the play isn’t just about the title character’s sanity. It’s a meditation on the soul of a community.

Marcus Gardley’s “Lear” runs through Oct. 2 at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets, $35-$80, are available at

Review by Georgia Rowe for the Bay City News Foundation.