Stacy Keach gives a towering performance in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of King Lear, filling the broad stage of Washington's Sidney Harman Hall with impassioned oratory and larger-than-life presence. Director Robert Falls originally directed Keach in this production at Chicago's Goodman Theatre three years ago; this version retains many Chicago cast members along with some of Washington's finest classical actors.
Falls takes his inspiration from the former Yugoslavia, which the dominating leader Marshal Tito held together for decades but left in disarray at his death, leading to bloody factionalism and ethnic cleansing. This Lear makes his ceremonial entrance at a party of well-dressed party leaders; his older daughters Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and Regan (Kate Arrington) glitter in jewel-toned gowns and fur coats, while their down-to-earth sister Cordelia (Laura Odeh) looks vaguely punkish in jeans and a leather-trimmed shirt.
This production never shies away from the genuine violence and menace of William Shakespeare's story, brought into the present with echoes of torture and other real-world atrocities. Regan's husband Cornwall (Chris Genebach) is a skinhead with a nasty temper, easily manipulated by the sleek, outwardly calm Edmund (Jonno Roberts), and Lear's rampaging knights (who drag a dead deer into Goneril's formal dining room and grope the servants) wear the armor of riot police.
Falls also spotlights the idea that, as the daughters of a charismatic dictator, Goneril and Regan grew up believing they were entitled to anything they wanted. This includes a decadent romp between the spiky-haired servant Oswald (Dieterich Gray) and a ravenous Goneril, and the later battles between the sisters over which one will get to sleep with Edmund.
The always reliable Edward Gero gives a lovely, rueful performance as Gloucester, the nobleman forced to choose between his two sons: Edmund, the duplicitous one who always seems serious and sincere, and Edgar (Joaquín Torres), who begins as a rather silly fellow but discovers his backbone after being forced to flee for his life. Andrew Long shines as Goneril's husband Albany, who remains surprisingly humane in the midst of all the carnage, and Howard Witt makes the Fool touching and elegiac, a man of about the same age as the king.
Ana Kuzmanic's costumes, Michael Philippi's lighting design and Richard Woodbury's sound design convey an all-encompassing menace. While Walt Spangler's scenic design is serviceable, ranging from gilded halls to bombed-out wastelands, it does not command attention the way the other designs do.
Shakespeare Theatre Company