Raye Birk remembers his first King Lear, at the 2001 Colorado Shakespeare Festival. The outdoor venue had 1,000 seats, a view of the Rocky Mountains, the occasional thunderstorm and cameo appearances by raccoons that wandered on stage. Birk laughed at the memory as a reporter arched a skeptical eyebrow.

"Oh, it was a regular occurrence!" Birk protested. "We just hoped it wouldn't happen in an important scene."

Birk returns to one of Shakespeare's greatest roles this weekend as "King Lear" opens at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul. The auditorium is considerably more intimate (350 seats), sheltered from the weather and presumably raccoon-free.

The veteran actor will play Lear as a mob kingpin from the Prohibition era, a notion that director Peter Moore hopes will accent Shakespeare's themes of family, loyalty and power.

The two were in a workshop a few years ago when Moore asked Birk, "When are you going to do your Lear?"

The Colorado "starter Lear" notwithstanding, Birk said he would play the King when someone asked. So Moore asked, and that was that.

Birk, 69, came to the Twin Cities in 2003, after 20 years working in film and television in Los Angeles. A Michigan native, he was a McKnight Fellow at the Guthrie from 1965 to 1967, "reading a Shakespeare play a week" with artistic director Douglas Campbell. Birk also spent nine years as a leading actor at ACT in San Francisco. He's taught at Southern Methodist, USC and in his own studio, "The Actors Workout."

"I'm the personal trainer," he quipped.

Birk has been a key and frequent player at the Guthrie, best known for his Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol." He also did the role for five years in San Francisco. It's the role he has performed more than any other -- 500 times. And there is something of the same individual in Scrooge and Lear, Birk said.

"Scrooge cracks open and Lear cracks open," he said. "His heart has been closed for years."

The difference is that there is no happy ending in "King Lear."

"Who says we have the right to be happy?" Birk asks. "Americans have gotten out of touch with a basic reality -- when did we get the idea that we should be happy all the time?"

Finding his way back

Even after 11 years, the words of the mad king have come back to Birk. He had the script learned before rehearsal started, and he and Moore have kept large chunks of his Colorado performance.

More important, he said, is the sense of creating an American Lear, an idea he and Moore arrived at independently. Birk believes the gangland milieu -- brutal and ruthless -- provides a perfect frame for the work.

In Lear, the aged king chooses to give his estate to two daughters who flatter him, to disinherit the one who speaks honestly. Lear consequently loses his empire and becomes mentally unstuck. His world view crumbles and he ends up in fearful delirium -- raging through the wilderness.

"I have a sense of what Lear goes through, to see what it is to lose everything, including ultimately his mind," Birk said, recounting how he watched his aged mother struggle through dementia.

If there is anything he fears in portraying Lear, Birk said, it is his own optimistic and sentimental nature.

"One of my most important teachers made me aware of that, so I try to stay away from it," he said.

This has been an interesting year for Birk. Lear will be the third big personality he's taken on. At Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company last spring, he created an intimate and personal portrait of a man who believes himself -- with a heaping dash of delusion -- to be a great playwright. This summer, he plunged into "The Sunshine Boys" with his old friend Peter Michael Goetz. The experience with Neil Simon's writing opened up a greater appreciation.

"I would love to play 'Sunshine Boys' and 'Lear' back to back in repertory," he said.

Now there is Lear, one of the grandest roles in the English-speaking canon.

"This experience does something to a person," he said, commenting on the shattering transformation Lear goes through.

"It's like a bad acid trip."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299