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A CurtainUp DC Review
King Lear

Pray do not mock me. I am a very foolish, fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

— King Lear
Stacey Keach as King Lear
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
There's a party going on when Stacy Keach as an effusive, fun-loving and strong King Lear makes his first entrance. His presence is felt immediately, not just by the booze, sex and rock 'n' roll loving partygoers but by the audience. They too are invited to applaud his arrival. Welcome to the party he is saying, all of us are in this together.

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.

King Lear By William Shakespeare
Director: Robert Falls
Cast: Steve Pickering (Kent), Edward Gero (Gloucester), Jonno Roberts (Edmund), Stacy Keach (Lear), Kim Martin-Cotton (Goneril), Kate Arrington (Regan), Laura Odeh (Cordelia), Andrew Long (Albany), Chris Genebach (Cornwall), Brian MacDonald (Burgundy), Aubrey Deeker (France), JoaquĆ­n Torres (Edgar), Dieterich Gray (Oswald), Gary Neal Johnson (Knight in Lear's retinue), Howard Witt (Fool), Hugh Nees (Old Man), Conrad Feininger (Medic), David Blixt (Captain), Norman Aronovic, Stacey Cabaj, Billy Finn, Dan Istrate, Dan Lawrence, William LeDent, Matt Baxter Luceno, Carol Randolph, Jeffrey Scott, Amanda Tudor, Scott Westerman (Ensemble).
Set Designer: Walt Spangler
Costume Designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting Designer: Michael Philippi
Sound Designer: Richard Woodbury
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Dance Consultant: Dan Istrate
Running time: 3 hours and 20 minutes, one intermission
Shakespeare Theatre at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St., NW; Washington, DC; 202-547-1122 and 877-487-8849;
From June 16 to July 26, 2009
Review by Susan Davidson, based on July 1, 2009 performance.
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