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King Lear

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

King Lear
John Lithgow
Photo by Joan Marcus

For a god, he's certainly not in control, is he? Losing his land, losing his daughters, losing his possessions, losing his sanity, and losing his life — in more or less that order — are more events you'd associate with a man, and an ordinary one at that. But the title character in the new production of King Lear at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park can't possibly be anything that mundane, not when he's so accustomed to the earth, sky, and everything in between bending to his every whim. These are the powers he's always known, and they can't dissipate that quickly.

Except they can and they do, something that director Daniel Sullivan's mystical but sensible spin on this heaven-sweeping tragedy reminds us better than most productions manage. The Lear here, played with a casual, taken-for-granted munificence by John Lithgow, has been at the center of everything for his version of forever. The opening scene features his subjects pounding hidden drums and braying to the sky, in supplication to forces they can't see but know are there, summoning a primal tribalism that puts their leader at the center of not just their lives, but their universe.

And when he first appears soon after, that's obviously where he belongs. Hoping to give up the day-to-day drudgery of ruling, he's parceling out his kingdom to his three daughters, based strictly on how much they claim to love him. When the two oldest, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), burst forth with their litanies of affection, Lear's visage and manner remain steadfast, his grip firmly on himself and the country he dominates. It's only when his youngest and most beloved child, Cordelia (Jessica Collins), refuses to play along that everything changes, and hardly for the better.

As Lear rages against her, not only disowning and displacing her, but also her suitor, the King of France (Slate Holmgren), and his own devoted servant, the Earl of Kent (Jay O. Sanders), you can actually see the deific façade crumble from Lithgow's face. In a manner of moments, the confident ruler has become a put-upon peasant, the man who commands others now eternally at others' command. From there, Lear's final fate is a fait accompli, the actions of him and those around him merely killing time until the inevitable has fully unwrapped. And, when it does, you're seeing the predictable evolution of decaying omniscience, a towering titan reduced to a sobbing, insignificant baby.

King Lear
Jessica Hecht and Annette Bening
Photo by Joan Marcus

In many respects, it's considerably more Greek than Shakespeare, as King Lear is, on the page, perhaps the Bard's most potent indictment of the limitations of the human spirit at the expense of an otherworldly one. But Sullivan does not strain to make his point his way: From the shadowy, thistle-choked, cave-like set (by John Lee Beatty) to the inception-of-civilization costumes (Susan Hilferty) to the nature-out-of-control lighting (Jeff Croiter) and the creepy sound design (Acme Sound Partners), he's gone further than any other director I've encountered at showing how this monarch and Sophocles's Oedipus are celestial twins. Bound by hubris masquerading as fate, they bring about their destruction in attempting self-preservation. Then they learn the hard way they're no more than flesh and blood.

Sullivan and Lithgow approach this concept so organically that, though it's clearer than it's ever been how things will end — no, how they must end — you have more reasons than ever to want to see the story all the way through. Chief among these is Lear's captivating own development. Upon his first appearance, Lithgow's king looks to be in complete command of his faculties, too spry and even young to wither into hopelessness. But that grasp of life is exactly what dooms him: hanging on to his past earthly pleasures, such as his trenchantly truth-spewing fool (Steven Boyer, pointed and no-nonsense), rather than assessing each moment anew traps him within a vortex of madness from which he can't escape when they're all taken away.

Lithgow's performance is littered with such moments, perhaps none more resounding than when he surveys his final loss at evening's end and can only cry out in a ritualistic chant that suggests he's about ready to give his body back to its creator. (Which, of course, he is.) It's enormously effective, if rather less affecting: Lithgow's Lear definitely looks at everything from the outside in, which doesn't make his portrayal a particularly moving one. Nor is it, like most of the rest of Sullivan's production, rife with groundbreaking choices apparently intended to brand this as the definitive mounting for the ages.

King Lear
John Lithgow with Steven Boyer, Jay O. Sanders, and Chukwudi Iwuji.
Photo by Joan Marcus

No, this Lear is intended strictly for the here and now, and that's a goal it achieves handily. The war between man and God — or, if you prefer, the war to tell them apart — is an ongoing struggle in our society, and questions of where official obligations of state end and personal obligations of family are more relevant than ever as America strives to find its footing on a shifting cultural battleground that's divided its various factions more than ever. The conflicts that erupt, not just between Lear and his daughters, but also between the Earl of Gloucester (Clarke Peters), and his sons Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji) and Edmund (Eric Sheffer Stevens), have rarely been as intimate, personal, or necessary as they are here, the expected outgrowths of a people struggling to locate their own identity.

Communicating that idea separates the winners from the losers here. Bening falters because her Goneril is too much an empty vessel, and not one the actress fills with identifiable motivations beyond the desire for more influence. Hecht's Regan is more interesting, as you can all but see her soul rot under the withering influence of her especially ruthless older sister. Collins's Cordelia is hardly innocent — from the first instant, she knows what trouble she's inviting through her truth-telling — and this makes her transformation, and ultimate fate, more believable and tragic than is often case. As Kent, Sanders doesn't give much beyond loyalty to Lear, but he gives it fully and well. And Peters, Iwuji, and Stevens find more urgency in their subplot than any trio I've ever seen in those roles.

They're central, too, to this production's anchoring scene, when Edgar, masquerading as an itinerant madman, meets Lear at the middle of his own downward spiral. Though already lost the ability to identify his surroundings or the common sense that drives it, Lear looks after and past Edgar as though he knows that he's secretly witnessing his own destiny: mewling about the mud rather than romping through the stars. As Lear stares, you observe the tiniest flicker of recognition that his birthright is no longer what it was, but that he's already accepted that fact. On some level, he knows that even the gods are immune to the ravages of time. But with Sullivan and Lithgow at the helm, King Lear looks as youthful and relevant as ever.


The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park
King Lear
Through August 17
Delacorte Theater in Central Park, Enter Central Park at 81st Street and Central Park West or 70th Street and Fifth Avenue.
FREE TICKETS to The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park are distributed, two per person (age 5+), at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park beginning at 12:00 p.m. on the day of each performance. In order to allow as many different people as possible to attend free Shakespeare in the Park this summer, visitors will be limited to receiving free tickets to two performances only of each production. There will continue to be a separate line for accessible tickets for senior citizens (65+) and patrons with disabilities.
VIRTUAL TICKETING LOTTERY FOR FREE TICKETS is available at www.publictheater.org on the day of the show.