A new theater company and an old acting pro combine talents to create an imaginative, energetic and unorthodox production of “King Lear.” Capping a long theatrical career that ranges from Beckett to the Bard, the 80-year-old Alvin Epstein is a fascinating and at times astonishing Lear: complex, multicolored and completely mesmerizing. Strong in speech and physicality, though his frame is slight, it’s a perf that summons skills and artistry from a lifetime onstage. Watching Epstein in one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles, you know you are in the presence of a master.
But it’s not simply a master class. Though completely controlled, the perf connects in an almost improvisatory way, offering all the cool and hot shadings of a seasoned jazzman — keeping the moment fresh while always honoring the song.
What makes the production doubly energizing is that Epstein is playing this staggering role in a small yet smart local company in just its second season. In an intimate, nontraditional playing space, helmer Patrick Swanson boldly explores the characters and text, even if the approaches don’t all quite work.
This is a “Lear” writ big but played small without losing much in the downsizing; it gains a lot in the forced intimacy, making the audience feel like eavesdroppers at court.
Aud arrives in what used to be the lobby of an old university building, complete with grand staircase and pillared columns. Seating is on both sides of the rectangular playing space (there is no stage per se) and the actors use every inch of the corridors, stairs and window ledges to create a world of royal intrigue and cruel wilderness. (Set succeeds more in the former than the latter.) With a floor covered with mulch, the walls decorated with a primitive mural and the columns flaking with gilt, David R. Gammons’ set design signals that this is a place of royal decay.
Ben Pilat’s nontraditional lighting, with lamps strung about the space, creates a playing area filled with shadows, mystery and light in surprising places, all apt imagery for a work that centers on blind ambition and sightless seers. Bill Barclay’s shrill and mournful percussive sound effects also give the production an eerie and discordant feel — though they fail to translate effectively in the tempest scenes, which come across merely as strange sound and limited fury.
Epstein loses some traction here as well, but nicely recovers as he slides into a quieter madness and then into his aged decline. His joyous reunion with Cordelia (Sarah Newhouse) and profound ache at her death are overwhelmingly sad, beautiful and fulfilling.
But this is not simply a singular star turn. Here Epstein is in good company, though several of the parts are cast younger than the norm. Allyn Burrows is commanding as the banished loyal Kent and has a grand time in disguise as a feisty Frenchman (complete with beret). Colin Lane is convincing as a Gloucester both smart and foolish. Paula Langton’s Regan searches for more than the usual notes of greed, power and lust.
The company’s artistic director, Benjamin Evett, plays an Edmund at first more mischievous than menacing. He is presented as not the brightest bastard at court but soon finds his engaging evil way as he propels the plot like a master manipulator.
Sometimes the youthful company pushes too hard. Ken Cheeseman’s Fool is forceful to the point of going well beyond his station at court. Doug Lockwood’s feigning of madness as Edgar/Tom seems to out-Lear Lear at times. And Jeannie Israel’s Goneril plays it too harshly by half, all evil glances and heaving bosom.
Several directorial choices are also misconceived, such as Lear stabbing his Fool when the delusional king mistakes him for one of his selfish daughters. Others are illuminating: Making Cordelia strong-willed and resilient, rather than the fragile beauty she is so often portrayed as, makes it clear she may have more in common with her sisters than one might think.
But in the end it is Epstein’s Lear who thoroughly commands the stage, breaks the heart and lifts the spirits. The old master also shows that, with good company, great theater can be found in the most surprising of places.