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King Lear

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Kristen Bush, Laura Odeh, Daniel Pearce, Kevin Kline, Michael Rudko, and Angela Pierce.
Photo by Michal Daniel.

Have the holidays come again already? Not quite, but you can be forgiven for thinking so. A trip to The Public Theater is all you'll need to convince you that Santa Claus has come back to town. For not only will you find a bright, blinking toy of a delivery has been made there, you'll also find a jolly old man with a big white beard whose fondest goal seems to be to deliver buckets of buoyant cheer, even when he could rightfully be sobbing his eyes out.

Were it December rather than March, and were the play an adaptation of Miracle on 34th Street rather than King Lear, there might be less cause for concern. But as directed by James Lapine and starring Kevin Kline as the King Who Can't Stop Giving, all that's missing from this magically misguided mounting of William Shakespeare's most piercingly human tragedy are visions of sugar plums dancing in your head. Chances are, though, that Lapine would have rejected those as being as old-fashioned as other traditional concepts he's excised from this Lear: size, occasion, and emotion.

In the case of the first two, the loss is noticed more than it's acutely felt. You're aware watching Lapine's Lear that you're seeing a work, much like its title figure in a famous fit of insanity, stripped to its core essence when faced with certain naked facts about the difficulty of existence. Perhaps in a nod of the head to today's shorter attention spans, or as a rebuke to younger theatregoers who might see Shakespeare as the stuffiest superstar of a stuffy art form, Lapine has focused squarely and intently on the family whose internal implosions are rending Britain; they give the play its purest plot, and Lapine wastes no time or energy in hitting it full-tilt.

Lear's dividing his kingdom between his two older daughters Goneril and Regan (Angela Pierce and Laura Odeh) in return for their token declarations of love, while spurning and banishing his truer youngest daughter Cordelia (Kristen Bush), is soared through, as though it's the price that must be paid to watch the later fireworks. So, too, are the schemes of power-hungry bastard boy Edmund (Logan Marshall-Green), who must patiently rattle through various explanations of his heritage before getting to his plan of depriving legitimate heir Edgar (Brian Avers) of the throne currently occupied by their father, the Earl of Gloucester (Larry Bryggman).

Once that's completed, the floor has been cleared for sparks to fly: Edmund's duplicitous romancing of both Goneril and Regan in an increasingly complex power play; both Edgar and the Earl of Kent (Michael Cerveris), a staunch Lear supporter, masquerading as poor men to save their own necks; a vicious blinding; a torrential storm threatening to correct the messes the humans have made; and, of course, the double-crossing, death, and hint of redemption necessary for a cathartic cap on any good action evening. This is one King Lear that never lags, never drags, and never droops.

Unfortunately, it also never digs much deeper than the guns-and-gals flicks Lapine seems intent on emulating. From Heidi Ettinger's abattoir war room set and the contemporary regal and renegade costumes of Jess Goldstein to the wildly uncentered performances, this is a production geared for maximum visceral impact and minimal invasiveness. When you have an Edmund who's apparently been cast more for his matinee-idol looks than for any psychological insights he'll unlock, and Edgar who vanishes into the sand covering the stage, or a Fool (Philip Goodwin) more about echoing Harpo Marx than reflecting Lear's own inherent absurdities, depth is not a goal easily achieved.

Kevin Kline.
Photo by Michal Daniel.

Ironically, Lapine's distaste for substance is most visible in the character whose fall from grace is brought about by just that quality. Though the play depends on Lear's inability to distinguish the artificial from the real, he cannot himself seem a proponent of the phoniness he unwittingly encourages. Yet it's clear from his first scene that Kline's Lear believes words are just one more delusion, as much of a formality as he considers the process of giving his possessions to his daughters.

For this Lear, to borrow from another famous Shakespearean figure, all the world's a stage. But if Lear is an actor in his own personal melodrama instead of someone who mistakes theatre for life, there are no walls to come crashing down around him when his illusions are toppled. That's the case here, making it impossible for Kline's Lear to descend into madness - he's there from the very beginning, pinpointing in voice and manner the myriad methods by which a miscast actor can approximate a thousand feelings without one convincing.

Kline's performance is heavily external: His posture changes from upright and strong, the measure of a monarch ready to pass on the crown, to so weak he can barely crawl, let alone sit up. But aside from that and Kline's outfit and ever-expanding white shock of hair, which eventually leave him looking like a cross between Kris Kringle and Lauren Bacall's Medea, there are few discernible differences between the opening's hopeful king and the finale's broken peasant prisoner. To the very end, both Lear and Kline look and especially sound like they're putting on a wrist-rapping morality play for a world adrift in recklessness.

That might be fine, if it had anything at all to do with Lapine's down-and-dirty bullet-train conception. But with a Lear who's more of a subway performance artist than a man who must learn every truth the hard way, one can't accept anything at face value, an irredeemable detriment in a cautionary play about exactly that.

Far more effective are the droll Bryggman, whose familiar put-upon everyman is a natural fit for the easily betrayable Gloucester; Cerveris's passionately doting Kent; and Michael Rudko as an unusually approachable Duke of Albany, whose marriage to Goneril can't quite stand in the way of his doing the right thing. Pierce and Odeh are somewhat one-note as Goneril and Regan, but come closer to justifying (in their own twisted ways) the girls' actions than most actresses do; Bush cuts an impressive figure as Cordelia, as militaristic as she is feminine, but lacks most of the heart that should Cordelia's most prominent feature.

It's not surprising she comes across as chilly. Lapine has left little room for warmth in this production too packed with scenes pushing the story rather than fueling the feelings that will give that story a life of its own. As Albany states early on, "Striving to better, oft we mar what's well." Much the same is true of both Lapine and Kline in this King Lear.

King Lear
Through March 18
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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