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A CurtainUp DC Review
Director Robert Falls — more about him later — has set King Lear in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s as that country like Lear's kingdom was being torn apart in a brutal civil war. The factions in Lear begin of course with his daughters: Goneril, played with ferocity and cunning by Kim Martin-Cotten; Regan (Kate Arrington, in the ensemble's weakest performance); and Cordelia (Laura Odeh, loving and very gentle until she dons military uniform in a fateful effort to aid her father). Their husbands are mere foils, their toy boys who perform on demand; and then there is Edmund (a terrific performance by Jonno Roberts) whose powers of seduction tend to overshadow his evil nature. Roberts and Dietrich Gray as Oswald find the humor that many actors and directors overlook or fail to notice. Humor is the prerogative of the Fool. In this production he is played with delicate understatement by Howard Witt. No vaudeville, no schtick just wise word play with a gentle kick at the punch line that works well in a production where there is virtually no understatement.
While Stacy Keach absorbs focus with every word he utters and Robert Falls keeps his players working at a gut-wrenching pull-out-all-the-stops pace, what is missing from the first act is emotion. Having recently seen PBS's Great Performances's King Lear with Ian McKellen I was struck by the differences between his and Keach's interpretations of the title role. McKellen's Lear is demented in the way of an Altzheimer's sufferer; Keach's Lear translates "mad" into rage. It's hard to feel pity for him, until Cordelia dies. On the other hand Gloucester (a beautiful performance by Ed Gero) evokes sympathy both for the machinations of his sons and his horrific fate. The second act is very different in that each tragedy effectively raises sadness and sympathy for the seemingly innocent. Even Lear, a bully and an egomaniac, is devastating as he holds Cordelia's dead body.
Falls has a wonderful eye. Each scene presents a visual image that will long be remembered. His highly successful interpretation is greatly enhanced by Walt Spangler's spectacular sets, especially the heath that shows the detritus of war — old tires, wrecked cars, garbage bags and, most movingly, many dead bodies a reminder of the visciousness of all wars. Adding stunningly to the mayhem is Michael Philippi's lighting. It is breathtaking in its beauty and its menace.
Richard Woodbury's sound design, ranging from Serbo-Croat disco music circa 1990 to the thunder claps that seem so forceful you wonder whether the roof of the Harman Center has caved in, adds greatly to the sum of the whole. (As thunder and lightening pounded the stage, I found myself wondering whether I'd remembered to bring an umbrella for the trip home.)
Shakespeare's words, Stacy Keach's force of human nature Lear, an almost perfect ensemble, Robert Falls's unique interpretation aided greatly by Walt Spangler, Michael Philippi, and Richard Woodbury, make this production unforgettable. Let's hope that the production which was first performed in Chicago in 2006 will be seen in other cities after it closes in Washington.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide