King Lear (with Stacy Keach in the title role) marks this season's opening production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago where Robert Falls is celebrating his 20th anniversary as artistic director. The design team includes Walt Spangler (sets), Ana Kuzmanic (costumes), Michael Philippi (lighting), and Richard Woodbury (sound).

Falls has directed over 30 productions at the Goodman — from Pal Joey in 1988 to the 1998 revival of Death of a Salesman, which transferred to Broadway — while producing more than 200 plays and musicals over the past two decades, working with a rich compendium of designers.

“He works one of two ways,” says Woodbury of his experience working as a sound designer with Falls on a freelance basis since 1992. “Either he has a complete vision and hears it all in his head, then directing us to realize his ideas, or he says ‘I don't know what I hear.’ For King Lear, he had an operatic vision and knew very much what he wanted to do. For Death of a Salesman, he wanted a jazzy score, and we had more open-ended direction.”

Directing his first Shakespeare since 1985, Falls updated the action to the Balkans, based on the events in Yugoslavia in the 90s, giving the production a modern resonance. This also resonated for Kuzmanic, who is from former Yugoslavia herself, and could relate to a king modeled on former president Tito.

“Bob Falls had this idea that the themes in King Lear can be translated to the present,” says Kuzmanic. “He saw a Serbian film about the war in former Yugoslavia, and the energy was very interesting to him.” This developed into a contemporary King Lear that is remote from his people and out of touch with reality.

Kuzmanic's costumes are modern yet maintain a sense of royalty. “Lear wears a long red coat that is a silk/wool blend with a fur collar and gold buttons and contrasts with his fool who looks like an old Russian clown in black and white,” she explains. The coat is longer and wider than a contemporary garment, making if fit for a king. Yet under the coat, he wears an unbuttoned white shirt, the beginning of his fall to tattered rags with duct tape to cover the holes. At the end, he appears in white pajamas and a long white robe, also a silk/wool blend with brocade collar and cuffs, as if he has been purified.

In the opening party scene, Lear's daughter, Goneril, wears a purple dress and large brown fur coat, while her sister, Regan, is in pink with a silver fox coat. “They wear the furs to show off their status,” notes Kuzmanic.

“When Lear becomes enraged with them, he rips off their coats.” The costumes for Lear, his daughters, and the fool were built in the workshops at the Goodman, while other contemporary suits and uniforms were shopped. “Lear's pale blue suit, worn in the opening scene, is based on photos of Tito,” notes Kuzmanic.

Falls seems to have hit the mark with his updating of King Lear, using The Bard's words to comment on current events. The production, which opened on September 9, has been extended through October 22.