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The Honest Fishmongers Equity Co-op production of King Lear is an intimate, fresh, and deeply moving encounter with one of the bard’s greatest works. It is performed in the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive, a space of only several hundred square feet. The audience sits in two rows against three sides of the room and the action unfolds in the centre space and aisles. In such intimate confines it would be absurd to maintain any pretense of a fourth wall and Director Kevin Bennett steers his cast to embrace this. The audience becomes woven into the fabric of the play: actors speak directly to seated patrons, beseech them to hold onto props, and even make physically contact – grasping hands as they implore, squeezing shoulders as the cajole, and relying on support to rise from the ground. The bold, risk taking staging could create considerable awkwardness if thrust upon the audience, but Bennett cleverly compensates for this before the play begins by having the out-of-character cast mingle, chat, and find opportunities to make subtle physical contact with the seated theatre-goers. This establishes a level of trust and comfort, for both audience and actor, that allows everyone to fully engage themselves in the intimate journey. At the 7:30pm mark, a trumpet sounds, the actors snap into a short dance and brilliant ‘turn off your cell phones’ speech that riffs on some of Shakespeare’s most memorable quotes (delivered in crisp, bouncing iambic pentameter), and the play begins. The story of Lear is a familiar one: an aging king decides to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, but first they must profess their love for him. Two daughters, Regan and Goneril, are false-hearted, but use deceitful flattery to win their portions of the kingdom. The third daughter, Cordelia, is truthful and good, but her honesty prevents her from engaging in such hyperbolic praise. Cordelia is banished, and Lear is soon turned away by his false daughters, left to wander in the wild as senility and madness slowly dominate him. This outline however only covers the scantest action of the play as, of all Shakespeare’s work, Lear is the richest in subplots and secondary characters possessing their own interwoven story arcs. Bennett’s direction, and the incredibly talented cast, bring these to the forefront in a way that is rarely seen, but deeply invigorating. It turns the typical narrative into an all-out, chaotic melee where every individual – from page to prince – has their own agenda and aspirations, for which they are ready to fight tooth and nail. This production is truly an ensemble piece, with each actor’s performance serving to enhance and drive those of his/her fellow cast members. At times it even takes on a sense of collective storytelling, largely due to the ensembles deft handling of Shakespeare’s rhythmic verse. It is difficult, therefore, to praise any one cast member, as excluding any would do them disservice. That being said, there are particular interpretations within the production that especially stand out. In the title role, Simon Webb offers a powerful and young Lear, who rages against his declining faculties rather than slip into them. As his most faithful servant Kent, David Bloom brings so much heart and humanity that the character’s storyline possesses catharsis on par with any other. Evan Frayne, who plays the scheming bastard Edmund, injected the dark role with an original smug humour. Anthony F. Ingram played Gloucester – father to evil Edmund – with little of the role’s typical meekness, and instead created a fascinating figure who drew great strength and bravery from convictions of duty. Among the women, Katherine Gauthier plays Cordelia with serious backbone. In the opening scene she does not seem to hold back flattery solely due to pious honesty, but also because she believes the request is ridiculous and demeaning. This makes Lear’s ensuing wrath all the more shocking. Her two sisters, played by Renee Bucciarelli (Goneril) and Emma Slipp (Regan), are almost sympathetic at the beginning of the play. Watching them slide from greed, to selfish justification, to plotting, to downright evil, is a much richer journey than when they simply start out corrupt. There is so much to praise in the Honest Fishmongers’ King Lear. Its staging and direction are intimate, engaging, and entirely original. Its cast features some of Vancouver’s most talented actors delivering staggering performances. Its treatment of the text demonstrates respect for Shakespeare’s writing and a trust that its audience are intelligent enough to follow the story without an excess of ‘art.’ It is a truthful, inventive interpretation, proving the bard’s stories are ever relevant and moving – never museum pieces – when approached with wit, honesty, and humanity. King Lear runs until March 17 at the Havana Theatre on Commercial Drive. Tickets are only $15 at BrownPaperTickets.com.