Idaho Shakespeare Festival opens a spectacular post-apocalyptic ‘King Lear’

Everyone should see “King Lear” at least once in their lives. Shakespeare’s examination of the transition of power from generation to generation is told through the lens of two families — one with three daughters, the other with two sons — both with enough power and land to make for some pretty dirty dealings. It particularly hits home as an election year approaches.

The tale as told in Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s production that opened Saturday will rend your heart and chill your spine.

Director Joe Hanreddy’s incisive cuts of the text and beautifully orchestrated production reveal all the royal mistakes and misdeeds, as well as myriad plots, injustices and evil exploits that will lead to the desolation of a kingdom, debauchery and madness.

Yes, it is the end of the world as Lear knows it. Hanreddy places Lear in contemporary times, easily bringing the 400-year-old play into our modern view. Somewhat of an obsession in today’s popular culture, it is beautifully realized here.

Lear abdicates his crown and divides his kingdom among his three daughters: Goneril (Laura Perrotta), Regan (Robyn Cohen) and Cordelia (Cassandra Bissell). Each must placate his ego with protestations of their affections. When Cordelia refuses to play her father’s game, she is cast out, igniting the fire that will lead to civil war and total destruction.

It manifests the apocalypse with trash — fried chicken buckets, office chairs and garbage — building at the front of the stage that pollutes the front of the royal house as a nod to the Greeks.

The core of the production is Aled Davies’ riveting performance as Lear. An accomplished actor who has given amazing performances throughout the his tenure at ISF, he tops them all here. Davies infuses the role with intelligence and an emotional pitch that drives the arc of the tale through its twists and turns of fate and fortune. As his ambitious daughters each tear at his identity and ego, you see the madness coming on like a sickness that touches every bit of his character.

But there are madness and tragedy for all. Perrotta’s Goneril is deliciously destructive, a modern woman with a medieval sense of vengeance as she seduces her way to her goals and dismisses her husband Albany, the only noble one in the bunch. Not to be outdone, Cohen’s Regan, the frustrated — and slightly sloshed — middle sister, tries to be an evil overachiever, which she is thanks to her wickedly demented husband Cornwall (a fantastic Dustin Tucker).

David Anthony Smith’s performance as Gloucester is layered with nuance and irony as the father who can’t see the truth about his two sons: Edgar (J. Todd Adams) and the bastard child Edmund (Jonathan Dyrud). As in “Dial ‘M’ for Murder,” Dyrud again blends his boyish charm with turn-on-a-dime insidious manipulation and malevolence. He plays a great villain. Adams makes dramatic transformations as his character goes from the deposed Edgar into Poor Tom the bedlam beggar back into his royal self, mirroring Lear’s journey. Dougfred Miller’s stalwart Kent is loyal to the end despite banishment. Bissell’s Cordelia is steadfast in her affection for her father.

Tom Ford as the Fool is heartbreaking as he watches his master Lear decline, knowing that their fates are one. Ford’s clown face and red nose become a kind of mask of tragedy as he listens to Lear’s ramblings. Eventually, Lear almost takes on the Fool’s persona, wearing his cockscomb as a crown at the height of his decline.

Linda Buchanan’s gorgeous “Ran”-inspired set helps seal the deal as it glows pristine in the first act, then literally crumbles as Armageddon approaches. Paul Miller’s lighting takes us from pastoral bliss to gloomy doom. Martha Hally’s costuming puts the polish on things as it spans slick and contemporary to tattered rags for a decimation. Rob Milburn’s and Michael Bodeen’s fantastic sound design amps up the energy and offers a spectacular opening to the second act. Fight director Ken Merck’s exciting, chain-wielding, action-packed fight scene between Edgar and Edmund will wow you.

There’s no such thing as a “King Lear” for the ages, but this is certainly one for our age.