STOCKBRIDGE — In the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death, the spirit of King Lear is lurking behind the Lavender Door in Stockbridge, home to Riggs Theatre 37.
Nightly through Sunday, the company will present "The King Lear Project," a taut, two-hour production of the Bard's tragic masterpiece directed by Kevin Coleman, Shakespeare & Company's director of education.
The fully staged play will take place in an intimate, well-equipped theater space situated above studio arts and craft workshops that are part of the renowned century-old Austen Riggs Center, an open residential psychotherapeutic treatment facility.
During the 1950s, dancer and artist Joan Erikson introduced the groundbreaking Riggs Activities Program, where skilled artisans and creative professionals provided advanced-level instruction in arts such as ceramics, painting and drama. William Gibson, the Tony- and Oscar-winning author of "The Miracle Worker" whose wife worked at Riggs, directed the first Theater Program.
Coleman has led the Riggs Theatre 37 company for over two decades, staging two shows each year open to the public with casts made up of Riggs residents, outside community members and local actors.
Plays are selected by company members and typically include Shakespeare in the spring and a potpourri in the fall that in recent years has included the French farce "The Patsy" and the surreal Russian classic "The Master and Margarita."
Coleman regards "King Lear" as "arguably one of the best plays ever written in the English language." He summarizes the story as an elderly king looking to pass responsibility for the kingdom to his three daughters, while he keeps his title and 100 knights. But his daughters want no part of him having power without responsibility, and the result is payback, with the daughters giving back what they likely learned from their father.
As people age, Coleman said, the body is not as capable and the mind doesn't work as well, but the ego remains intact.
"It can get ugly," he warned. "Shakespeare is writing Lear at a point in his career when he is beyond masterful. He articulates so accurately the way people really are, and that's not always pleasant to see. And the repercussions of that will destroys a world."
He sees the project as more of an investigation.
"A lot of our focus has been on making the language clear," he said.
"You could work on this play for 10 years and still be discovering things," he said. "There's no getting it right, there's just getting the next insight, the next step and putting that on stage."
For local theater veteran Glenn Barrett, who played "Shylock" in last year's "The Merchant of Venice," tackling the title role of Lear is a "once in a lifetime opportunity."
"One man's shame can turn into anger and violence." he said. "In the case of King Lear, that can impact a nation. Mix in a little pride, and you've really got a dangerous situation."
One of the final lines of "King Lear" is "Speak what you feel and not what you ought to say," a theme present throughout the play, the company, and perhaps the entire Riggs family.
Community cast members consistently value the unique experience of performing with Riggs Theatre 37. "You truly become a family, you're all so supportive of one another;" "The camaraderie that happens is energizing;" "It's a community of people who want to be here," are just some of their comments.
"It's the model of our open setting to have that interface between what goes on here and our local community," said Riggs Therapeutic Community Program Director Donna Elmendorf.
"Some people come with experience, and others develop their interest and talent while here, and go on to study theater at college and at Shakespeare & Company's annual intensives," she said. "Many times people find it inspirational and develop careers at a very high level through the work they've done here."
Company members might also find Shakespeare & Company professionals working alongside them in production roles and leading workshops in theatrical techniques such as voice and stage fighting.
"We're trying to help people understand something about the meaning in their lives and the struggles they've had," Elmendorf said, "working to help people stay in touch with their strengths and capacities."
If you go ...
What: Riggs Theatre 37 presents "The King Lear Project;" text by William Shakespeare, directed by Kevin G. Coleman
When: 7:30 p.m. daily through Sunday
Where: 37 Main St., Stockbridge
Tickets: $20 general admission, $10 students and seniors
Reservations: (413) 298-5519, ext. 5606