André De Shields, center, plays the mad King Lear in the legendary Shakespearean play.
This year's production of St. Louis Shakespeare in the Park is getting a virtual release — a first in the event's history. Starting tonight at 8 p.m., a streamable version of the company's lauded production of "King Lear" will be available for public viewing on-demand through August 1.
Starring Tony Award-winning actor André De Shields and a cast entirely comprised of performers of color, "King Lear" premiered in June to a fraction of the annual event's normal audience. Those who were fortunate enough to view the play in person had to purchase RSVPs to snag one of the limited number of "pod" spaces at the Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park.
Along with De Shields' acting in the role of King Lear — a self-destructive monarch who drags his allies and family into his throes of madness — the St. Louis production's north Africa-inspired sets and costumes won applause from viewers and theater critics alike; the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Calvin Wilson called it "a 'King Lear' for our time, but also for the ages." The New York Times praised De Shields as a "towering presence" on stage.
"It was a Shakespearean world like nobody had had ever seen before," says Tom Ridgely, producing artistic director of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival.
He adds, "And, of course, André is just a supernova. He's on another level."
While "King Lear" is the first of the company's productions to be released for public viewing online, it isn't actually the first St. Louis Shakespeare Festival play to be filmed. While video recordings are made each year, they are never released. Instead, as Ridgely explains, the footage is used to preserve an archival record of each play and to potentially aid in future "remounts" of the production.
But this year, with less than a quarter of its usual audience in Forest Park — which at capacity could exceed 6,000 — the Shakespeare company upped the production values on its usually bare-bones film recording.
"What we've never done before is capture something with the eye of it being shared with a public audience in any way," Ridgely says. "We've never done a multi-camera shoot and edited it together, all the things to make it work almost as a movie."
When the play debuted in June, it arrived at a time when the recent availability of vaccines meant hope for a return to normality for the region's performing arts scene — but those expectations have been upended by the spread of the Delta variant through Missouri.
For Ridgely, this timing makes the release of "King Lear" to a wider audience even more special.
"To be able to offer people a really new theatrical production when there might not be one for longer than we thought, we hope it helps. We hope people appreciate it," he says. "It's just such a beautiful production. It's beautiful to listen to and the music and design and performances are just the very highest order. If you love the theater, if you care about Shakespeare at all, or if you just want the perspective of some brilliant artists about where we are in 2021, you couldn't do any better."