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For DTC, It’s ‘King Lear,’ Twice in a Year

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On Friday, the Dallas Theater Center opens King Lear. It’s a co-production with Trinity Repertory Company of Providence, R.I., where the show was staged in the fall. So what’s it like to produce a play and then do it all again so quickly?

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Once Kevin Moriarty stages a play and the curtains are drawn for opening night, he does his best to put it out of his mind.

Stephen Berenson (left) and Brian McEleney star in the Dallas Theater Center’s King Lear. Photo: Mark Turek

“It’s actually physically painful or I become physically anxious when I’m watching work that I’m responsible for that I know I can’t come in tomorrow afternoon and spend five hours with everybody changing,” the Dallas Theater Center artistic director says.

Directors are usually barred from making major changes to a show once it’s “frozen” in theater lingo. But King Lear offers a rare opportunity to tinker anew.

Moriarty directed the joint production at Trinity Rep in the fall. It’s the latest in the two theater’s long working relationship. And since he knew he’d be staging it again in Dallas a few months later, he flew to Providence for one of the final performances. Once he found his seat in the theater…

“I instantly reached for a pen I had in my coat pocket and started jotting new ideas,” he says.

Some of those ideas involve technical details that audiences would never pick up on. How an actor should exit the stage or how a prop should enter a scene. But moving the show into the larger Wyly Theatre presents opportunities to expand the staging. Sword fights that had to be confined to Trinity Rep’s stage can now spill out into the audience.

Plus, Moriarty says different rooms just have different vibes. He compares it to moving into a new house with a living room that has the exact same dimensions as your old one.

“Even though you could put the furniture in the same place, you can’t actually re-create the same experience from one room to the next,” he says. “There’s an energy that’s different, and you respond accordingly.”

Brian McEleney plays the show’s title role, a king who goes mad. And he’s had the challenge of keeping one of the theater’s wordiest parts in his head since the play closed in October. Like the play’s famous storm scene:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

Holding onto all of that dialogue is tricky. McEleney’s an avid runner, and so he used his daily runs to go over his lines.

But remembering the words is only part of the process. McEleney says performing in front of a new audience changes the experience. Particularly since he’s based in Providence.

“I don’t think there was a single performance in Providence where I didn’t know at least three or four people in the audience,” McEleney said before a rehearsal last week. “So there’s always that slight feeling of slight self-consciousness. I feel as though here I can really let go of it and just do it and see what happens.”

The staging may be altered a tad, and the performers may add different nuances to their characters. But the one constant from Providence to Dallas is the play itself. On the surface, it’s about a king dealing with the responsibility of governance and dividing his kingdom among his three daughters.

But both director and actor say its themes are universal. And they’re always ripe for reconsideration.

“It’s about a lot of really tough stuff. Aging. Facing who you are, your own mortality – what happens in that passage of life,” McEleney says. “I’ve been using a lot of my parents – my deceased parents appear in this play a lot in terms of my understanding of what this experience was. It allowed me to think about their final journey a lot, and daily I still do. It makes you think about what it is to be human.”

King Lear runs through Feb. 17. Thirty minutes before each performance, DTC will host its free Come Early lecture series.