Sam Waterston has played Hamlet, Prince Hal, Benedick and Prospero, so it’s only fitting that he would tackle King Lear for his 12th appearance at the Public Theater in a Shakespeare play. It’s not a role he was born to play, being too generous (and perhaps too youthful) a performer to be entirely comfortable in the skin of this proud, fierce monarch. But by the end of the play, when the old king has been humanized by his suffering, Waterston has made his mark on the role. In true Public tradition, the other performances are up and down.
The best part of this production are the great curses — you just have to wait for them.
Waterston makes his first entrance in too advanced a state of senility (or incipient madness) for the explosive scene in which Cordelia (a rather wan Kristen Connolly) refuses to compete with her sisters Goneril (the queen bitch in Enid Graham’s chilly perf) and Regan (played with more impassioned cruelty by Kelli O’Hara) for her share of their father’s kingdom. As a consequence, there’s more bluster than magisterial rage in Lear’s furious rant at Cordelia’s reluctance to declare her love for him.
But Waterston really lets it rip later in the play, when the king finally acknowledges the treachery of Goneril and Regan. Eyes open at last to their heartless cruelty, he calls down ghastly punishments on his daughters and whatever children they should be unfortunate enough to bear. Lear’s curses are all the more affecting because Waterston allows us to see the deep sorrow fueling the anger of this shattered old man.
More juicy curses flow from the Earl of Kent (John Douglas Thompson) when that honorable noble lashes out in a fury at Goneril’s lackey, Oswald (Michael Crane), for his disloyalty to the King. Thompson’s clarity of thought and purity of expression make Kent as memorable a figure as the thesp’s recent remarkable turns as Othello and Macbeth.
When Lear provides Waterston with his finest moments by wandering out on the heath in act two, he brings some good actors out there with him — notably, Michael McKean (a most moving Gloucester) and Thompson again (in disguise as Caius). But Arian Moayed and Seth Gilliam don’t bring much to Cain and Abel siblings Edgar and Edmund, and whatever Bill Irwin is going for with his garishly costumed and bizarrely played Fool is anyone’s guess.
The absence of a clear production style has to account for some of this unevenness. Helmer James MacDonald has done interesting things locally on stages like Lincoln Center (“Dying City”) and BAM (“John Gabriel Borkman”). This staging produces a few strong theatrical effects — a fierce storm on the heath (nice sound design by Darron L. West) and the dramatic drop of a metal mesh curtain (the best feature of Miriam Buether’s set). But the bare-boned nature of the production doesn’t offer enough guidance to establish order on the stylistic inconsistencies.