Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Into the Woods
Director Alfred Preisser would probably say that he wants this interpretation to reach out to the audience, immediate and vital. It does, but not perhaps in the best way: he blurs the line between actor and audience with some uncomfortable moments of direct contact.
The confusion starts with the appearance of a powerful man (Ty Jones) sweeping the stage and the auditorium aisle with a broom made of branches. Is he a servant in Lear's palace, perhaps? No, he's Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester (Harold Surratt) and a man of stature who manipulates the proceedings when he isn't punctuating his words with bits of gymnastics.
Preisser has moved the setting of the play to ancient Mesopotamia, allowing for the incorporation of Middle Eastern music and African drums. However, the drums also provide backup to Lear's Fool (Ken Schatz), making his barbed jokes sound like part of a struggling Las Vegas comic's act.
André De Shields is undeniably regal as Lear, effortlessly powerful in his early scenes, utterly haunted in his decline and collapse. He commands the stage whenever he is on it. Interestingly, De Shields and Preisser offer a characterization that makes Lear's rejection by oldest daughter Goneril (Chantal Jean-Pierre) completely understandable: the members of the king's entourage are a rowdy bunch, and when Lear is with them he sheds the nobility of royalty and acts more like Falstaff.
Sexuality is another underlying theme of this King Lear. Regan (Deidra LaWan Starnes), the king's hateful middle daughter, literally crawls toward her father to demonstrate her love and devotion, and Lear strips the skirt and headpiece off his devoted Cordelia (Christina Sajous) when she refuses to flatter him. She redeems herself later, showing her martial arts moves as she helps to lead the army fighting against her sisters.
When the performers stick to Shakespeare's text, they do better. Jerome Preston Bates is a moving Kent whose loyalty to the king is mixed with pathos in witnessing his fall. Harold Surratt is a nobly anguished Gloucester who, like Lear, is misled by the false affections of one of his children.
Troy Hourie's scenic design enhances the frenzied sense of movement, as some scenes are played on moving platforms. Aaron Black's striking lighting design and Kimberly Glennon's beautiful ethnic costumes fare better at establishing time and place.