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King Lear

Packing a Lear Punch below the Belt

Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009, Seats A–105&106 (front row orchestra)
Directed by Robert Falls

Its thematic setting and interpretative staging are sure to make this Goodman Theater-originated production a landmark staging of King Lear. Stacy Keach played the king as a Tito-like figure whose division of the kingdom descends his present-day Slavic-like England into ethnic- and nationalistic-driven chaos, with bastardy and lust substituting for ethnicity and nationalism—though, clearly, individuals' self-interests were the driving force.

This interpretation created a discomforting urgency in the watching, bringing Shakespeare's rendering of nihilism in ancient England forward to a current-events truth. Lear's band of knights was a troop of riot police. Oswald was a wannabe gangsta rapper. The heath was a garbage dump for the homeless. Regan and Goneril were amoral princesses straight off the set of Real Housewives of New Jersey. We watched the posturing, the maneuvering, and the increasing violence with titillated horror. We smirked bemusedly at Cornwall's and Edmund's mano-a-mano, homoerotic embraces and then squirmed at their literal dance of death. We giggled at Regan's and Goneril's inevitable catfight and then gasped at its inevitably ugly culmination.

The production's most elegiac and moving moment came during the war with France. Against a soundtrack of shelling and gunfire, townspeople dragged wrapped bodies onto the stage as exasperated, blood-stained doctors threw them into a mass grave. In the middle sat blind Gloucester (Edward Gero), confused until he touched a child's body, the horror of realization dealing his heart the fatal blow. The scene lasted uncomfortably long, and when Gloucester himself died, he, too, was thrown into the mass grave, the onetime nobleman become tragic figure now just a numeric figure, an estimated one at that.

While Shakespeare's lines interpret to this setting seamlessly, some of the choices director Robert Falls made came with consequences. Edmund killing Cornwall created script anomalies later when Edmund arrived with Goneril at Albany's house. Edgar's asides were cut, depriving the audience of learning his motives in leading his blind father through various scenarios. That, then, undercut the sense of Gloucester's despair upon meeting the mad Lear. In the end, Edgar's goodness came across only as weakness. Only Kent (Steve Pickering) came off heroically, albeit his actions proved wholly futile, and even he cut an uncomfortable figure on stage, starting off as a Soviet-style general and coming back disguised as a thug.

Despite the powerful mass burial scene, I count a production of King Lear ultimately a failure when its most moving moment is not Shakespeare's devastating ending. After being drained by all the mayhem and mass casualties, the only shock we felt upon Lear howling over Cordelia's dead body was that her body was totally nude (and after earlier seeing Edgar and Lear dance in the nude, Cordelia's nakedness was not so much a shock as badly timed prurient interest).

That's no denigration of Keach's performance. His Lear started off as a full-of-himself despot, and we watched him grow increasingly confused in his interactions with the Fool (Howard Witt, representing the long-gone culture of Lear's youth). When Lear did descend into madness, it was the tipping of a man from reality into surreality. He didn't rage at the heavens during the storm, he gleefully soliloquized. Mad Tom became his exemplar. Later, Lear was the muttering homeless bum we see all the time in downtown D.C. Keach's tenderness with Cordelia was touching; unfortunately, Laura Odeh's Cordelia was a too-cool-for-you princess who didn't merit being Lear's favorite daughter. More engaging was the lusty, jealous Goneril as played by Kim Martin-Cotton, and Kate Arrington's Regan, a spoiled sex-kitten who loves to watch fights. Jonno Roberts' chip-on-his-shoulder Edmund was coolly cocky. Andrew Long's Albany was a conflicted man with a sense of decency but not the courage to take control. Chris Genebach was a truly menacing Cornwall. And in a short but memorable turn, Aubrey Deeker's France provided a rare moment of sweetness that even Goneril admired.

Eric Minton
July 3, 2009

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