The Jersey Bard fest has begun an extended fall-winter season with Shakespeare’s savage family tragedy “King Lear,” last seen here in 1979. Daniel Fish has staged a clear and honest modern-dress production, which falls a little short of the required thunder and fury, but triumphs with a few remarkably focused performances.
Harris Yulin, recently seen on Broadway as the compassionate patriarch in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” gives an assured performance as the betrayed monarch, displaying restrained passion and rage. He evokes sympathy as Lear is beguiled and deserted by his treacherous daughters and is clearly at his best with the second act descent into madness. His poignant reunion with the blinded Gloucester is especially touching, but the howls of anguish and woe upon discovering his youngest daughter’s death sadly miss their mark and the tragedy’s enveloping final grief is diminished.
Julyana Soelistyo offers another remarkable turn in dual roles. A Tony nominee for DavidHenry Hwang’s “Golden Child,” in which she portrayed a wise ancient grandmother and a giddy young girl, the diminutive Soelistyo brings a touch of sweet dignity and purity to the role of Cordelia and doubles as Lear’s Fool with impudent, elfin charm. Her Fool spouts wry, whimsical wisdom in fanciful rhyming couplets, and moves about with nimble grace. (She has just been inked to appear in Steven Spielberg’s film of “Memoirs of a Geisha.”)
In the role of the warm-hearted and gullible Gloucester, Jack Ryland is persuasively noble and commanding. He makes the deceived earl an affecting, pivotal figure, and the gouging out of his eyes is a cringing moment.
The jarring gape in this production is the missing venom of Regan (Michelle O’Neill) and Goneril (Kate Skinner). As a couple of glamorous, sophisticated blondes, wrapped in furs and silk gowns, the ladies display a commendable icy veneer but skirt the evil ferocity of their plotting. The harrowing thrust of their villainy is muted.
There is fine support from Teagle F. Bougere as the poor duped Edgar, who seeks repentance and roams the stormy heath in rags. Also good are Henry Woronicz’s loyal Kent, Mark Niebuhr’s treacherous Edmund, Grant Goodman’s malicious Cornwall and Bernard K. Addison’s vengeful Albany.
There is more power and strength in the harsh staccato light design by Scott Zielinski than in the storm that engulfs Lear and his little Fool — the tempest is reduced to a rumble. Christine Jones’ stark set design is dominated by a high-tech, banked ceiling of lights that are summoned for varying atmospheric moods.