One of Shakespeare's great tragedies, "King Lear" centers on generational conflict, mistaken judgments and insanity.
Written between 1603 and 1606, the play follows two dysfunctional families. The title character chooses the wrong children to inherit his kingdom, while the Earl of Gloucestor trusts the wrong son.
"It is really one of the big masterworks of literature," said Heike Hambley, who is directing the upcoming Merced Shakespearefest production at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center. "For Beethoven, it's the Ninth Symphony, for Shakespeare, 'King Lear.' It seems like there's a world in chaos. So many things go wrong. You think this is the worst that could happen, but things get worse."
The title role is a challenge of a lifetime for Dave Keymer, a 73-year-old frequent community theater actor and former dean of students at California State University, Stanislaus.
"It's one of the hardest plays I've done," he said. "It's also one of the most poetic."
To prepare, he's read the play dozens of time, studied Oliver Ford Davies' "Playing Lear" and read numerous books on acting Shakespeare. Keymer views the 80-year-old Lear as a tyrant who never has let his three daughters express any viewpoint. Ready to retire, he is not yet ready to give up control.
"He wants to keep all the honor and hand over all the hard work," Keymer said.
Keymer is one of four Modesto residents in the show. The others are Jennifer York (Goneril), Charlene West (Regan) and Daniel Essenmacher (Edmund).
Other cast members are Shelley Rhode (Cordelia), Zach Ellis (Cornwall), Bert Roper (Albany), Robert Zellers (France), Reed Boyer (Fool), David Hambley (Kent), Rick Morrison (Gloucestor), Jim Bennett (Edgar), Murphy Mayer (Oswald) and Karen Damme and Dave Elam (attendants, knights, officers, servants).
Heike Hambley cut the three-hour-plus play to two hours to make it more palatable for modern audiences. It will be presented in the period it was written.
"It's very easy to follow," Keymer said. "It's very dramatic. "It's a heck of a lot better than a soap opera."