The production is co-produced by Folger and The Classical Theatre of Harlem, as part of the "Shakespeare in Washington" festival that includes many D.C. troupes.
Directed by Classical Theatre of Harlem co-founder Alfred Preisser, King Lear will play through Feb. 18.
"Ambition and jealousy rend the peace of family and of kingdom when an aging monarch gives up his throne and divides his land among his daughters," according to Folger notes. "King Lear explores some of the central questions of mankind's existence: destiny, love and duty, friendship and betrayal, leadership and loyalty, and the inevitability of a life nearing its end. Equal parts intimate domestic drama and explosive political commentary, King Lear is Shakespeare at his most poetic, powerful, and profound."
"This production of King Lear is based on the idea that the play is essentially a fairy tale, a fairy tale in which Lear's family is analogous to the universe," said director Preisser in a statement. "The same forces of creation and destruction that exist in the world of nature are at work in the family as well, with Lear literally facing nature and issuing it orders, as he has been doing with his children. Lear learns, as most of us do at one point or another, that there are serious limitations and consequences to ordering around either of these parties."
The world of ancient Mesopotamia in the time of The Code of Hammurabi (1800 BC) is the director's "jumping off point for costume, law, and societal structure." He said, "We are placing the story in a Middle Eastern world where the legal idea of 'an eye for an eye' was first put to paper."
Immediately prior to its Washington, DC presentation, this co-production of King Lear played at The Classical Theatre of Harlem in New York and at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
De Shields received Tony Award nominations for his performances in The Full Monty and Play On!. Also on Broadway, he appeared in Ain't Misbehavin', The Wiz, and Mark Medoff's Prymate. De Shields previously collaborated with Alfred Preisser at The Classical Theatre of Harlem in Caligula and Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain (Audelco Award for Leading Actor in a Drama).
Lear's daughters are played by Christina Sajous (Cordelia), Chantal Jean-Pierre (Goneril) and Deidra LaWan Starnes (Regan).
The cast also includes Harold Surratt as Gloucester; Ty Jones as Gloucester's illegitimate son, Edmund; Danyon Davis as Edgar, Gloucester's other son; Jerome Preston Bates plays nobleman Kent; Ken Schatz is Lear's ever-faithful Fool; Francis Mateo as Cornwall; Todd Scofield as Albany; Ian Lockhart as France; Zuanna Sherman as Oswald; and Duane Allen as Burgundy. JJ Area and Shayshahn MacPherson round out the cast as knights, messengers and musicians.
The creative team includes scenic designer Troy Hourie, costume designer Kimberly Glennon and lighting designer Aaron Black.
For more information, visit www.folger.edu/theatre.