COURTESY FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY Renowned actor Joseph Marcell leads a cast of eight talented actors of Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour Production’s rendition of the classic tragedy - “King Lear”. The show is held at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Renowned actor Joseph Marcell leads a cast of eight talented actors of Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour Production’s rendition of the classic tragedy – “King Lear”. The show is held at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

We typically think of Capitol Hill as the playground of high-powered politicians and the gilded cage of the college intern, but this area is also home to a pillar of English literary tradition.

Housing the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials, the Folger Shakespeare Library is a comprehensive hub for researchers, students and theater-goers alike. Shakespeare is arguably the best-known playwright in the world, and this can be seen through the variety of his written works that survive to this day.

One such work is “King Lear,” a tragedy set in England during the eighth century B.C. The title character slowly descends into madness and decides to divide his kingdom among his three beloved daughters, which leads to jealousy and a brutal struggle for power. The play explores the ties of familial love and the themes of betrayal and distrust, as well as both literal and figurative blindness. This month, the Folger Shakespeare Library is hosting a performance of this world-renowned classic by one of the best travelling theater companies, Shakespeare’s Globe On Tour Productions.

Shakespeare’s Globe in London is a functioning replica built at the sight of the original Globe Theater, which burned down in 1613. It is known internationally as a place of performance and education, past and present. Much like the Folger Shakespeare Library here in Washington, D.C., Shakespeare’s Globe is centered around the mission of keeping the great playwright alive, relevant and accessible.

Undoubtedly, the library itself is a must-see, with its ornate, yet simple exterior. However, the real gem of the Folger Shakespeare Library is the Folger Theatre — a three-tiered, intimate Elizabethan theater designed to invoke the image of an English Renaissance-era inn, where travelling actors during that time period would often stop to stage performances. The venue tremendously added to the experience and set the tone from the very beginning for an authentic and impressive evening drama, much like the original Shakespearean playhouse, the Globe Theatre in London, where the touring company is based.

Renowned classical actor Joseph Marcell, perhaps better known among the student generation for his role as Geoffrey the butler on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” played King Lear, leading a cast of eight that completed the atmosphere set by the beautiful stage on which they performed. The English actor, who has starred in other classic Shakespeare works such as “Othello” and “Macbeth,” has a captivating stage presence that makes him a perfect Lear. His shift from regal self-control to the role of an increasingly deranged victim is perfectly executed and adds crucial drama to the play.

Bethan Cullinane also gave an impressive performance. This young actress was cast in the dual, alternating roles of Cordelia and the Fool and managed to play both seemingly opposite personas remarkably well. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, Cullinane expertly conveys the anguish of both of her characters.

The actors quickly proved themselves to be a group of multi-talented individuals as they seamlessly switched from impassioned dialogue to choreographed dancing to the mastery of various musical instruments.

Several short songs and musical overtures were incorporated into the play’s intricate storyline, and these additions raised the quality of the show even higher. The cast was able to execute not just perfect a cappella harmonies, but also lilting, complex instrumental pieces with drums, a trumpet, a flute and an accordion. Sound effects were manufactured entirely from the cast, who effectively created and conveyed a terrifying tempest at a climactic point of the drama.

The costuming was another well-executed element of this production of “King Lear.” The outfits were simple, yet successfully conveyed the position, gender and personality of the respective characters. As many of the actors played two or more different rolls, the utility of these easily adaptable costumes was truly displayed. The addition of some oversized pants and a hat were what helped the dainty Princess Cordelia easily transformed into the rowdy and hilarious Fool.

A common complaint when it comes to Shakespeare is that the flowery language and frequent monologues can sometimes lose the modern audience. One thing that definitely kept theater patrons interested in the play’s progression was the sword fighting. Periodically, especially in the second half of the play, characters would break out into well-timed action sequences that succeeded in breaking the monotony of the traditional but occasionally heavy dialogue.

The fantastic, engaging performances given by the Globe’s actors, the gorgeous venue and the entire production successfully balanced an intense tone of authenticity while still remaining relevant to a modern-day audience. The timeless themes of this popular Shakespeare play mean that it always manages to engage an audience, but with Marcell’s powerful stage presence the play is raised to a new and exciting level. “King Lear” will be playing at the Folger Theatre until its closing night Sept. 21 — don’t miss the opportunity to see this great show.

Other shows scheduled for the Folger’s 2014-2015 season include “Julius Caesar” (Oct. 28 to Dec. 7), “Mary Stuart” (Jan. 27 to March 8) and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (May 1 to June 21). Tickets are sold at the box office, on the phone and online at

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