Any director worth his salt who tackles “King Lear” will attempt to redefine the center in Shakespeare’s mightiest tragedy: mythical, cosmic chaos or earthbound human suffering; railing madness or afflicted lucidity; historical decadence and nullified political power or the destruction of a tormented soul. So given that James Lapine’s stage work has often been distinguished by its sensitivity, compassion and even gentleness, it’s perhaps not unexpected that his uneven “King Lear” for the Public emphasizes not so much the treachery of this supremely cruel drama as its grief and despair — an approach reflected in Kevin Kline’s take on the title role.
Naturally, the conniving bitches and deceitful bastards are all here, their rivalry and greed yielding bloodshed, death and sorrow, and their self-serving machinations literally transforming a world to rubble. But in coaxing greater depths from the handful of good characters — exploring their loyalty, selflessness and purity, the sad paradox that they are stripped of position, dignity, sanity and even sight to be given clarity — Lapine reveals the play’s torn heart.
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Kline is the key accomplice in that operation. Though one of America’s most accomplished Shakespearean actors, he is in many ways an odd fit for Lear despite his easeful grasp of the language. His natural persona tends more toward good-humored intelligence and quiet fortitude than the brooding melancholy, blustery rage and enfeebled physical gravitas so often unleashed in this role. And while the actor turns 60 this year, he’s far from an old man.
His way into the character is less as a broken monarch than a flawed but loving father. Being a king seems almost to get in the way of that purpose. Lear’s vanity, his silly need for validation even at the expense of honesty, is, of course, the first step in his undoing. But his own folly seems less crippling in Kline’s surprisingly contained performance than the debilitating weight of power and the poisonous lust for it that drives his usurpers. He’s an ordinary man burdened by extraordinary demands.
Lapine’s departure point, even before the first line of dialogue is spoken, illuminates that focus. He has Lear’s daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, as young girls, playing around a sandpit embedded in the metal grid floor of Heidi Ettinger’s industrial set. As the audience arrives, the preteen sisters are seen coloring the outlines of a map of England in the sand, soon to be divided up among their older selves according to the daughters’ love for their father and king.
The younger sisters appear again in the final scene like ghosts of the family Lear pushed away. Taking up position alongside their adult corpses, they poignantly underscore the true dimension of his loss and the root of his madness.
Not every choice registers so clearly, however. Though striking in design terms, the production never quite achieves binding coherence due to a conceptual disconnect. Ettinger’s steel girders and multiple staircases bring fitting severity and allow plenty of platforms on which to drape the multiplying bodies. But like Jess Goldstein’s modern-dress mix of red carpet-ready gowns and chic urban-military wear, the intention behind the cool aesthetic never crystallizes.
Enhanced by Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin’s ethereal incidental music and David Lander’s expressive lighting, the staging is certainly theatrical (folks in the front rows were wrapping up in coats and scarves during the storm). But the correlation between visuals and text remains vague.
When the sandpit expands to occupy the entire main playing area, associations with the Middle East are inevitable. And the glass panels that recede to release a wall of tumbling stones provide an arresting image of collapse. But the cold, high-concept design seems at odds with Lapine’s intently personal focus.
The contemporary parallels in a world plagued by civil wars and bitter divisions are apparent, notably in Gloucester’s speech: “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt father and son.” But the production’s physical acknowledgement of that connection feels perfunctory.
In addition to Kline, the most stirring work comes from Larry Bryggman as the deceived, soulful Gloucester and Brian Avers as his wronged son Edgar, growing from bookish nerd to crazed, feral outcast to noble survivor. With his sonorous baritone, Michael Cerveris brings profundity to banished Kent’s allegiance. And Michael Rudko’s Duke of Albany conveys the pained conflict of a man surrounded by wickedness but compelled to do good.
As Cordelia, ostracized because of her refusal to embroider her feelings with false flattery but ultimately the only daughter worthy of her father’s love, Kristen Bush comes across disconcertingly like a Sharon Stone-type icy blonde. This makes her Cordelia less sympathetic than she should be, but she’s nonetheless a strong woman who knows her own mind, and her return to Lear’s affections heightens the emotional engagement of the final scenes.
The bad girls are problematic. More Jackie Collins than Shakespeare, Angela Pierce’s Goneril is a sleek-looking, generic vixen right out of “Footballers’ Wives,” while Laura Odeh’s resentful, easily led middle sister Regan is like Jan Brady off her meds. She’s so borderline hysterical from the start that her overwrought lasciviousness or her insane pleasure as Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out just become a shrill descent.
As Gloucester’s scheming illegitimate son Edmund, Logan Marshall-Green telegraphs his villainy too forcefully, but his watchful calculation eventually wins out and the actor has an agile, sexy stage presence that keeps him compelling.
Lapine’s production underwhelms as often as it engrosses, its relatively circumscribed scope sometimes playing against expectations for such a broad-canvas power piece. But like Kline’s all-too-human Lear, its virtues are more memorable than its weaknesses.