Adrian Hall’s staging of “King Lear” with F. Murray Abraham is a stripped-down, austere, earthbound affair that, for all its lucidity, neither touches the heart nor rattles the soul as this play must. It’s utterly lacking in tragic dimension, though there are moments when Thomas Hill’s magnificent Gloucester almost lifts the entire production above the mundane.
That comes as somewhat of a surprise, because few plays command our attention the way “King Lear” does, and few contemporary directors have built careers by challenging conventional notions of the classics as Hall has. An actor’s director, Hall has spent four decades making theater in which text serves the vision of a director working intimately with a company of actors; though the results can be electrifying, the writer often gets short shrift, whether that writer is a hapless provincial unknown or a hapless Shakespeare.
With respect to the classics, the result sometimes is theater of the age as opposed to theater for the ages. Hall’s Central Park staging for the New York Shakespeare Festival, two seasons back, of “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” explored the idea of same-sex friendship in an age of explicit homosexual love. Now he has returned to take on Shakespeare’s most fearsome tragedy, with the volatile Abraham in the title role.
Because audiences today have no ear for Shakespeare, it’s no mean feat to offer a production of as complex a play as “King Lear” that contemporary theatergoers will be able to follow without a cue sheet. As always for both the Shakespeare Festival and Hall, the play has been cast across lines not only of color but of experience, as well. Some of it is inspired: Jeffrey Wright, memorable as the nurse, Belize, in “Angels in America,” has an edgy nerve as the Fool, and both Margaret Gibson and Elizabeth Marvel have strong moments as Lear’s treacherous daughters, the imperious, driven Goneril and Regan, passenger on the Lear family gravy train.
There is also creditable work from John Woodson as the faithful Kent, and Rob Campbell as Gloucester’s son, Edgar. The production almost achieves some emotional resonance late in the play, when the disguised Edgar is leading his blinded father toward Dover and a reunion with the exiled King.
On the other hand, Brienin Bryant is wholly out of her league as Cordelia — no surprise for such a young actress — and Jared Harris is a major disappointment as Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund, the play’s beacon of evil and, here, a complete fizzle.
For anyone expecting fireworks from Abraham — or thunder to match the great storms conjured on Eugene Lee’s literally blasted heath of a set — the disappointment will be especially acute. Looking too young with his black hair and beard, his level of agitation never allowed to hit spin cycle, Abraham creates a king of diminishing impact. “Lear” requires a superhuman dimension, one allowing us to believe that the utter destruction of this silly, vain old man “more sinned against than sinning” is a tragedy of noble proportion, one set in motion by a flawed hero but urged on by cosmic forces.
Instead, minimalism prevails: The fights are as bloodless as the verbal confrontations. Lee has set the action on a stage featureless but for some cracked plaster and scaffolding; similarly nondescript are Catherine Zuber’s costumes and Natasha Katz’s subdued lighting. The rattling sound is overused, but at least Dan Moses Schreier’s design is distortion-free.
Hall’s longtime musical collaborator, Richard Cumming, seasons the atmosphere with intriguing musical shards, though it’s a mistake to impose the two musicians on the action. Things are screwed up enough as it is.