Monday, November 14, 2011

King Lear

Why would King Lear do something as foolish as give up his kingdom? What if he were secretly aware of showing early signs of dementia?  Sam Waterston seems at first to take this approach in the current production of King Lear at the Public Theatre, and it's an interesting interpretation. Unfortunately, he soon trades it in for yelling. And yelling. And yelling. And when he finally does drop his yelling--to whisper, "Howl. Howl."--it comes across as a gimmick rather than a moment of heartbreak. His Lear is one-dimensional.

But, of course, Lear is not just about Lear. It's also about his three daughters--the two glib connivers and the loyal but tongue-tied youngest. And it's about Gloucester, who is no better than Lear at knowing which child to trust. And it is about the stalwart Kent and the wily Fool--and about Edmund and Edgar, whose life stories were determined when one was born on the right side of the sheets and one on the wrong.

The cast has that trademark Public Theatre variety of races, acting backgrounds, and types. Some of the performers nail their roles. Kelli O'Hara works against her sweetness and is satisfyingly rotten as Reagan; the reliable Enid Graham is even rottener as Goneril; Michael McKean, famous for his comedy roles, makes a credible Gloucester; Seth Gilliam is a charmingly evil villain; Bill Irwin provides a textured and touching Fool; and John Douglas Thompson does well as Kent (but would do even better as Lear!). On the other hand, Kristen Connolly as Cordelia and Frank Wood as Cornwall lack the skills to perform Shakespeare effectively.

The direction, by James Macdonald, does not unite the components of this production into a coherent whole. But, and this is a big but for a three-and-a-half hour performance, the show is never dull.

No comments: