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'Poor Lear' wows Shakespeare fans with Alan Tilson's one-man show

Alan Tilson stars in a one man show of Shakespeare's King Lear at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theater for the Kansas City Fringe Festival.
Alan Tilson stars in a one man show of Shakespeare's King Lear at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theater for the Kansas City Fringe Festival.
Courtesy of Kansas City Fringe Festival

"Poor Lear" at KC Fringe Festival

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"Poor Lear," a one man, one-hour, shrinks and re-images Shakespeare’s “King Lear” by making Lear a homeless man in a modern setting, with one man enacting all the roles in the tragic story of a king who divides his wealth among three daughters and is thrown out of doors to face the elements and come to terms with his own mortality.

“The idea (of “Poor Lear”) had its beginning as a reaction to not getting cast at the local Shakespeare Festival,” Alan Tilson, performer/producer of “Poor Lear,” said, “and then all the other professional theatres in town banning any Shakespeare pieces for their auditions. I was complaining to Cheryl Kimi, head of the Kansas City Fringe Festival, at a theatre party, that I had over 50 Shakespeare monologues, some of which I had memorized for over 40 years. I used them as audition pieces but also to keep my acting chops in shape. Cheryl suggested I do them for the Fringe, and so I performed sections of the 50 monologues for four years with the KC Fringe and two years with the Minneapolis Fringe Festival.”

For the 2014 KC Fringe Festival, Tilson brought his best, “Poor Lear,” that enjoys a run at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre at 3614 Main Street, Kansas City, MO. The theater seats about 100 for their Fringe productions.

Tilson performs an amazing self-crafted piece with a shopping cart of props a park bench, and a curtain for a backdrop. Tilson’s delivery of Shakespeare’s verse is understandable, dramatic, funny, approachable, and fitting for general audiences. He uses facial expressions and gestures in a pared-down story so the audience will leave knowing “King Lear” and understanding the plot line of the story.

“Although I enjoyed performing the monologues, it became obvious for the audience to enjoy it too they needed more a story line and narrative frame to fully appreciate the characters and the speeches. I began thinking then of what show I needed to select and how to put it in the context of a Fringe Show with it’s time and minimal stage requirements.

“I heard that Alan Cummings was bringing his one-man Macbeth to Broadway so got tickets front row and center to see his show. After seeing his show, I realized a one-man Shakespeare was entirely doable. His contemporary setting--a mental hospital--was itself another character in the show that was immediately accessible, to the audience (not some dead old Elizabethan retelling), and gave him artistic license to creatively and theatrically keep the narrative going even when it wasn’t exactly the Shakespearean story.” Tilson said.

In October 2013, a one-man, one-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” performed by Tilson, directed by Taylor St. John, “Poor Lear,”came in partnership with The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre in a benefit for the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City. Kansas City, Missouri.

“The script is entirely the original ‘King Lear’ with very minor changes for modern comprehension; for instance I have changed, ‘All germens spill at once that make ungrateful man’ to ‘All germs.’ Otherwise, the entirety of the ‘purple passages’ are reverently in tact,” Tilson said.

“Poor Lear,” sets Lear as a homeless person, and will be performed by Tilson. The production in October was to assist the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City in association with the Episcopal Community Services. For the Kansas City Fringe Festival, Tilson uses a sign on his cart to help bring focus to the homeless and displays the sign at the end of the show, as well.

“You could say I have been developing this for over 40,but the most pertinent journey would start last April 23, Shakespeare’s Birth & Death Day, when I saw Alan Cumming’s Macbeth at the Barrymore on Broadway. (In)the month of May I edited the script, cutting the sub-plots almost completely out and keeping the main characters of Lear, the three daughters and the Fool. It took 9 drafts to complete the work,and that wasn’t completed till after the first three weeks of rehearsal.

“I began memorizing the 14 pages of script in May & finishing the end of June so that I was entirely off book to begin rehearsals in August. We rehearsed two weeks in August, two weeks in September and two weeks in October.” Tilson said.

Tilson at that time used a second person to announce scene changes and bring in props. Since that time he has re-crafter the show so only he performs. His solo performance puts even more emphasis on his Shakespearean acting chops.

For the past 21 years, the internationally acclaimed Escape2Create’s month long residency has advanced the role of the artist and the experience of art as a valued component of community life. Escape2Create in Seaside, Florida selected Tilson and “Poor Lear” for an Artist-In-Residency for the month of February, 2014.

Tilson said he enjoys Shakespeare since he focused on that while in college for his undergraduate degree. That being the case, he said he was so moved and touched after seeing another actor create a “new Shakespeare” in a more contemporary format that he began looking for ways to include that into his resume. As such, he needed to percolate and form his own piece; hence, “Poor Lear” evolved.

“After being inspired by Cummings show, I just needed to pick my play and decide on a setting. I always have loved ‘King Lear’ and it became my number one choice after ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Troilus and Cressida’ and ‘Richard II.’ ‘King Lear’ was the apogee, I believe, of the English Language and the crowning achievement of Shakespeare’s dexterity with iambic pentameter to the point that it sounds more like jazz compared to classical music,” Tilson said.

The decision to do “King Lear” in a new format slowly developed. Tilson said he had been a fan of “King Lear,” the story line, and the language. As such, he studied, focused, memorized, and performed parts of the play over the years.

“My absolute favorite Shakespeare recording has been for many decades, Paul Scofields’s ‘King Lear’ directed by Peter Brook. For a long time, I would go to sleep listening to the record and then the cassette tape when technology advanced (now I have the CD). I also had eight monologues memorized already, so knew I had a head start. When I performed them at the Fringe Festival, however, one after the other, I became painfully aware how misogynistic they sounded when out of context of the play.

“It bothered me so much, that when my three daughters were in the audience, I became ill at my stomach having to say such hateful things about women in front of them. Yet I still loved the language and the play’s two themes of loyalty and forgiveness. I wanted another shot at ‘Lear,’” he said.

Tilson needed to change the setting to bring the piece a new freshness and relevance and the character and setting came to him on one of his daily walks along Kansas City’s Brush Creek, he said.

“I needed to decide on setting. I take almost daily walks along Brush Creek and, as I was ruminating one day, passing the same homeless characters under the bridge, when it finally dawned on me that a big part of Lear takes place when he becomes homeless. Eureka – and that was it,” Tilson said.

The show, "Poor Lear" demonstrates the plight of the homeless people, an ongoing tragedy for so many, and ongoing since the dawn on mankind. As such, Tilson’s show comes with information about the homeless and proceeds benefit that group.

Tilson is a member of the Acting Core Ensemble with MET and has acted in more than 17 MET productions including Main Stage, the Library Script-In-Hand series, and has toured with MET’s The Hindu & the Cowboy for 7 years. He has performed locally with the Kansas City Repertory Theater, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Theatre for Young America, the Living Room Theater in “Titus Andronicus” at The Country of the Blind for Coterie Theater tour, and in the title role of Moliere’s “The Miser” at Union Station City Stage.

Tilson has worked regionally with the Oregon and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals, four years with the Minnesota Shakespeare Company in Minneapolis, and with the Black Hills Playhouse. He has produced and performed sections of 50 Shakespeare monologues for four years with the Kansas City Fringe Festival and two years with the Minneapolis Fringe Festival. He is also a retired Episcopal priest.

“Back in the day, they used to say if you could act Shakespeare, you could do any other kind of acting, so I started concentrating on Shakespeare in college to the point where I was selected as one of nine new actors to join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was still an undergraduate at UMKC,” Tilson said.

To see the development of his long-time and intimate affair with the works of the Bard, come and see Tilson’s Poor Lear. With only four play dates, time and seating will be limited, and Tilson encourages patrons and friends to book tickets early to avoid being shut out of his limited run.

Tilson is nothing short of phenomenal in “Poor Lear.” The show comes with the highest recommendations. Tickets and information may be found at the KC Fringe website