Return of the King 

The New Moon Theatre Company opens King Lear at TheatreWorks this week. It's the first fully realized production of Shakespeare's epic tragedy to appear on a Memphis stage in 50 years.

"The last would have been in the early 1960s in a production staged by the Memphis Shakespeare Festival," says veteran actor Bennett Wood.

"There was a time when nobody in Memphis was producing Shakespeare at all," Wood recalls. "The Little Theatre wasn't doing Shakespeare, and Front Street Theatre hadn't arrived yet."

The Memphis Shakespeare Festival launched in the early 1950s, he says, and concluded in the early 1970s with a Keith Kennedy-directed production of Richard III. Wood first participated in a 1957 production of Hamlet and over the years played bit parts and leading roles.

"I was miserably miscast as Marc Antony in Antony and Cleopatra," he remembers.

Wood landed plum roles in both productions of Lear. Fifty years ago, he played Edmund the villainous bastard. For the 2012 go-round, he's playing Gloucester, Edmund's father.

Wood describes New Moon's Lear as a passionate chamber production in modern dress with a cast of 15.

"When I was playing the Stage Manager in Our Town, Kell Christie, the director, said she wanted to direct me as Lear. I told her my sell-by date has passed on that one. The line load is huge, and it requires a lot of stamina. I'll be 80 years old my next birthday."

Wood may lack the stamina for Lear but continues to take on challenging roles. "As Gloucester, I'm strapped to a chair every night," he says. "And then the chair is kicked over. And then each of my eyes is squeezed out one at a time."

"King Lear" at TheatreWorks April 6th-22nd. $15. Info: 484-3467.

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