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King Lear

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

King Lear
Sam Waterston with Kristen Connolly.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Because King Lear turns on the dissolution of humanity in the face of the natural order, it's crucial that it be human to begin with. James MacDonald missed that particular memo with regards to his new production of the play at The Public Theater: He's envisioned William Shakespeare's most unremitting tragedy as an exercise that's equal parts intellectual and mechanical, in which traditional emotion, growth, and common sense don't apply. As daring a venture as this may be, and as fascinating and ineffective as Sam Waterston is vacationing in the title role, MacDonald's version is more a random riff on a classic than the thing itself.

If absolutely nothing else, the last several centuries have taught us that Shakespeare offers infinite room for experimentation, so the notion of a mounting that's as cold and doddering as its title character at his twilight is within the realm of believability. But three and a half hours, well over two of which bleed away before intermission, is a long time to stay in a sandbox. Literally: Miriam Buether's barren, Waiting for Godot–like set resembles the desert exhibit at a science center, with the dusty, grainy floor backed by three white walls and a chain link curtain that screams "harsh" with each (deafeningly) clanking appearance. From the opening moments, you interpret this atmosphere as unrelenting and unforgiving.

Yet if the work's point is that people must solve the problems inherent in the universe, isn't an all-consuming devotion to dread missing the point? By dividing his realm of England into three portions for his daughters Goneril (Enid Graham), Regan (Kelli O'Hara), and Cordelia (Kristen Connolly) based on how they proclaim their love for him, Lear is attempting to embrace order by imposing it unnecessarily, irregularly, and irrationally. When Cordelia refuses to play along, leading to her ostracization, then Goneril, Cordelia, and their husbands, the dukes of Albany (Richard Topol) and Cornwall (Frank Wood), savage Lear by rejecting him when he tries to live with them on the territory he gave them, he learns that in a very real way we're all helpless. But further events show that determination can turn even the most devastating tide.

MacDonald and Waterston, however, give short shrift to the second half of that by largely ignoring Lear's critical arc. The man is so feeble-minded from his first appearance that the character is as restricted figuratively as he is literally. During the famous storm scene, for example, in which a turned-out Lear is supposed to descend into primal helplessness, Waterston can only dial up the whine in his voice and trip about the stage with his trousers half off. This has no impact whatsoever; the visual of a grand ruler losing his dignity is considerably more powerful when he has a shred of it to begin with.

Not that MacDonald takes the storm itself seriously. More than once in the cues thunder precedes the lightning, and rather than terrifying with their primitive stature the bolts sound like the result of someone stepping out of a shower and onto an electrified bath mat. But beyond that, it affects no one onstage; every actor behaves as though it's rending the land somewhere else, and they've somehow wandered into the sole serene pocket of English real estate. This makes it rather difficult to take seriously the violent, degrading tendencies of existence the scene is supposed to represent. And once those, too, are gone, what remains of King Lear?

Certainly not enough in the main plot. Waterston is a fine actor, but his slow-brewing underhanded authority is not ideal in a role that requires a full-boil command of the stage over such a long period of time. The character must be supple of feeling, able to slide effortlessly between sanity that looks like madness and madness that provides a window into sanity; Waterston settles for the sheltered middle between those extremes, giving an irritatingly safe performance that doesn't expand into the furthest corners of this marathon part.

King Lear
Sam Waterston with Kelli O'Hara, Frank Wood, and Michael McKean.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Connolly and O'Hara are also challenged. The former is merely drab and unexciting; the latter, best known for plying her shimmering soprano in major musicals, poses with Princess Diana attractiveness in Gabriel Berry's flattering costumes, but inhabits no consistent frame of mind to help you understand what makes Regan tick. Wood is so wishy-washy that he shrinks as you watch him; he makes the impression only of a vague toady, hardly an equal partner and eventual provocateur in the anti-Lear movement.

Luckily, Graham, imposing and regal of stature, makes a legitimately threatening Goneril that reinforces the core conflict. Topol has trouble justifying Albany early on, but proves much more dynamic after his mid-story change of heart. Things are better still thanks to the strong Edmund and Edgar of Seth Gilliam and Arian Moayed, their bickering fraternal dynamics and especially Moayed's darkly feigned insanity emanating the heat that's absent in the Goneril-Regan scenes. John Douglas Thompson is a convincing Kent, and Bill Irwin is (no surprise) ideally cast as the Fool, dispensing sensibly underplayed council and never overdoing it with his omnipresent ukulele.

Most interesting of all may be Michael McKean. As Edgar and Edmund's father, Gloucester, he fulfills a role similar to that of Lear, but without starting from the same initial high point of exaltation. Though McKean is a bit unsteady finding his launching point, he becomes unusually touching and even sympathetic as Gloucester sees the error of his ways and strives to make amends for the actions he took in rending his own family. By the end of the play, McKean has made Gloucester pitiable but not pallid—a crucial distinction that should apply to Lear as well.

Alas, neither Waterston nor MacDonald obliges. They depict him as a generic victim of time for whom redemption is pointless, someone already in freefall and not worthy of a parachute. Perhaps their view is that Lear's simplistic thinking does not merit any kind of reward, and that what befalls him is what's coming to anyone who values platitudes over substance. That may be a smart way of looking at it, but by denying us a cogent study of this complicated man and the world he lived in, they ultimately do little more than scratch the surface of King Lear.


King Lear
Through November 20
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: publictheater.org