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They know why the Bard's words sing

Veterans, newcomers join forces to stage 'King Lear'

Veterans, newcomers join forces to stage 'King Lear'

February 20, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

Hubert Rolling, crown perched atop his head and wearing a white, flowing gown, barks orders to his minions.

Seated on his throne, the old man's mind is willing, but his body is weak, life slipping steadily away in drips and drabs.

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there for Rolling's King Lear, the titular character of the Shakespearean tragedy. First, though, there is more work to be done on the Apollo Civic Theatre stage, and not much time to do it.

Because in two days' time, a crowd eager for "Gods and Generals" will fill the small Martinsburg, W.Va., theater. In the meantime, the space is fit for a king.


"It's a passionate role, and I like that," Rolling says before a recent rehearsal. "He can go through all the emotions you can believe, from a cranky old fart to a humble man."

In the works for a month and a half, "King Lear" opened last weekend and continues Friday, Feb. 21, through Sunday, Feb. 23. Losing a day on stage to the Feb. 12 Martinsburg premiere of "Gods and Generals," preparation has been harried but healthy.

As Rolling bounces from one pre-rehearsal obligation to another, assorted members of the cast run lines or socialize. Swords clang at their sides or slice into one another while actors practice fight choreography.

"It's been a bit frantic, but now it seems to be gelling a bit better. There's always this mad rush at the end," says Roger Hulme, who plays Lear's trusty aide, the Earl of Gloucester. "Something happens then, but I don't enjoy this sinking in your stomach about a month ago when you think, 'Oh, god, it's never going to come together.'"

In 50 years, Rolling has performed upward of 150 plays. He's undertaken musicals and dramas. And his all-time favorite playwright remains William Shakespeare.

The actor has performed "Romeo and Juliet." He was part of an Old Opera House (in Charles Town, W.Va.) production of "MacBeth." "Richard III" and "Much Ado About Nothing" have also received the Rolling treatment.

But this is his first stab at "Lear," a show he had to grow into.

"You can't play Lear until you can really feel the illnesses Lear feels," Rolling says. "Yeah, it's a taxing role, and I sympathize with the old man. First of all, he is a curmudgeon, I'll grant you that. He's a cranky old man."

Yet the character's crusty exterior melts away some as age catches up to him. Lear begins to see his faults and changes as a result, becoming more humble as the play continues.

Like Rolling, Hulme is plowing through "Lear" for the first time. He views the play as a microcosm of society and its web of complex relationships.

Everyone, he says, can relate to something in Shakespeare's words, whether the sibling rivalry between Lear's three daughters or Gloucester's own devotion to his king.

"He's unswervingly loyal to the king and essentially dies for it," Hulme says. "I think that's very noble."

Rolling calls "Lear" a passionate play, an appropriate term used by a similarly passionate man. He quotes lines from Shakespeare's text with ease and marvels at the texture of the Bard's words, their poignancy and their relevance.

"Over and above the fact he had a magical handling of language, and plots that build," Rolling says, "all of his plays show a deep interest with his characters. He had a real insight into human nature."

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