Ensemble Shakespeare Theater places a modern twist on ‘King Lear’ in ‘Lear’s Shadow’

As the executive director of the Lineage Performing Arts Center for the past three years, Brian Elerding has overseen an ambitious slate of dance events, storytelling shows, plays and classes that have drawn acclaim and an ever-growing audience. And since 2012, he’s also been putting a fresh spin on the plays of Shakespeare as the head of the Ensemble Shakespeare Theater, seeking to present them in a way that is “intimate, personal and risky.”    

Its current production of “Lear’s Shadow,” which Elerding wrote and directed and stars longtime Ensemble members Fred Cross and David Blue, fits that description perfectly. Focusing on two friends acting in a production of “King Lear” who are dealing with an unexpected tragedy, the show weaves together scenes from Shakespeare’s legendary play with the personal drama the performers are encountering to create an interpretation of “Lear” that upends its usual perception.

“The audience experience of it is walking into a dark theater as two friends from a theater company start working out their feelings about a recent loss, and it becomes clear that something terrible has happened before the show, and they’re working through it together,” says Elerding. “The play happened because I really wanted a show that has a hopeful ending. I think art these days needs to have a message of hope, and to model empathy.”

An Altadena native who studied theater at George Washington University, Elerding created the Ensemble in 2012 after he and two actor friends reminisced about how much they loved performing Shakespeare in college. They decided that rather than waiting for others to provide them the opportunity to perform the classic works, they could create their own, and approached Descanso Gardens in La Cañada-Flintridge about performing shows there with a “supergroup” combining veteran actors with up-and-coming talents.

“There’s lots of people, like A Noise Within, who do full Shakespeare shows, but what we do sets Shakespeare elements into a unique setting or format, like a half-hour show of his sonnets that we performed several times a day in the Gardens’ Camellia Forest,” says Elerding, who also brings EST productions to Lineage in the spring and fall each year.

“Lear’s Shadow” builds on the Ensemble’s inventive past works, including “Villains,” which combined Shakespeare’s greatest bad guys Shylock, Tybalt and Macbeth together into one show that explored what makes someone a villain.  The troupe has also performed “Lovers,” which featured nine of the playwright’s greatest love scenes, and numerous non-Shakespeare shows for family audiences, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “A Christmas Carol.”

“It’s a full-time gig running Lineage, and being an actor and director is full-time, but I love them so much I don’t mind doing them,” says Elerding. “When you’re an actor, it’s so important to have a core group of people that understand what you’re going through, and that’s what I have here.” 

The Ensemble Shakespeare Theater presents “Lear’s Shadow” at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, as well as at 8 p.m. May 5 and 6, at Lineage Performing Arts Center, 89 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $15 to $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Visit ensembleshakes.org.