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A CurtainUp Review

King Lear by Elyse Sommer

Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again---King Lear, warning his favorite daughter, Cordelia that unless she can find words to prove her love for him, her share of the kingdom he is handing over to her and her sisters will come to nothing.
Christopher Plummer as Lear
Christopher Plummer as Lear (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Lear's advice to the daughter who refuses to flatter his vanity to speak again if she doesn't want her rightful inheritance to come to nothing is true enough. But nothing is also what his other daughters' assurances of filial devotion come to and what Lear is reduced to as a consequence of his tin ear for recognizing whether words come from the heart or are prompted by greed.

And as anyone who's seen other versions of King Lear will agree, any production of Shakespeare's brilliant blend of national and familial disputes and the basic issue of facing old age and death, will itself come to nothing without a better than good Lear. That means an actor who can believably navigate the trajectory from misjudgment to wisdom, from powerful somebody to despairing outcast. The good news is that Christopher Plummer's Lear is very much something -- a stand up and cheer performance that finds the seventy-six-year-old actor in fine voice, his every line eloquently delivered and his mannerisms for depicting the frailties of old age uncannily real (just watch the mouth quiver as if keeping false teeth in place, the slightly trembling hands, the unkempt hair with its birdlike tufts of white fuzz).

While King Lear ranks right up there with Hamlet, it is not produced all that often. The last Broadway production dates back to 1968 (it starred Lee J. Cobb). The last major Off-Broadway production at the Public Theater (with F. Murray Abraham) just missed making CurtainUp's first season in 1996. No wonder tickets have been snapped up for this limited run, even by those for whom watching so many lives come to nothing is more tragedy than they care for at one sitting. Who knows when they'll next see one of the contemporary theater's great actors in one of Shakespeare's great roles?

This King Lear's arrival at Lincoln Center right on the heels of another high profile Shakespeare play, the all-in-one Henry IV, makes for inevitable comparisons. Alas, the current production lacks the all-star lustre of its predecessor. While Kevin Kline was a memorable Falstaff, he was surrounded by a cast that made for unflagging enjoyment, whereas Christopher Plummer gets less consistently first-rate support from his fellow actors. There's nothing wrong with director Jonathan Miller's view of the play as a chamber piece, with emphasis on the family drama rather than the sweep of history, and the staging is true to traditional Elizabethan theater conventions. It's a solid but also stolid production, whereas Henry IV was solid and, if you'll forgive the non-Elizabethan term, also had oomph.

With Ralph Funicello once again listed as the scenic designer, one is lulled into thinking that the bare bones look of the two-level wooden set will before long reveal visual surprises to enhance the experience. As it turns out, what you see when you sit down is what you get for the entire three hours and fifteen minutes.

Of Lear's daughters, the wicked Goneril (Domini Blythe) and Regan (Lucy Peacock) fare best in supporting Mr. Miller's vision of these women as the progeny of an unloving, unreasonable father who expects his extended visits to their homes to include his large and raucous entourage from his life on the throne. Still, with their monstrous Jacobean wigs, they seem somewhat cartoonish parodies of Cinderella's unlovely and unloving stepsisters. Unfortunately, the good Cordelia as portrayed by Claire Jullien, is such a cipher that you wonder why Lear favored her to begin with. Given this blandness the emotional high point of the play which calls for Lear to carry the slain Cordelia's body on stage might have spared Mr. Plummer any heavy lifting by substituting a large and lightweight doll for Jullien. Director Miller handles this by having Plummer drag the body wrapped in a sort of tarp on stage which reminded me of the finale in Edward Albee's The Goat, when Stevie similarly hauls forth the body of her four-legged rival. Fortunately, Mr. Plummer is a good enough actor not to let this bit of business interfere with this moment of agonizing pain.

To offset that misjudged scene at the end of the play, Mr. Miller does give us a most interesting opening which immediately introduces and spotlights the Fool. Barry MacGregor, giving one of several superior performances, fully realizes the potential of this character as a wise friend who has the wisdom his foolish king still has to acquire. Another deft directorial touch early on, is to underscore the King's fading powers by having him repeatedly and amusingly forget the name of one of the royals (the Duke of Burgundy played be Guy Paul) hovering about as he's about to divide his kingdom.

As for the father-son family conflict of the Gloucesters that parallels the father-daughter saga, James Blendick gives a fine reading of the Earl who also chooses his favorites unwisely -- in this case preferring the scheming Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies) over the faithful Edgar (Brent Carver). Carver, who's best known for his role in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, is persuasive as the saintly good son though his Christ-like outfit sticks out like, well, like a crown of thorns -- and too many of his lines lack clarity.

In opting for a minimalist mood that focuses on the language rather than theatricality, Mr. Miller has even turned down the volume and intensity of the play's famous thunderstorm. I know it's not supposed to last all that long, but if there were TV weathermen in 1603, this storm would be unlikely to make a big splash on any broadcast.

In the final analysis there are two good reasons for trying to nab a ticket to this King Lear: 1. Shakespeare's indestructible play about nothing but also everything and 2. Christopher Plummer's grasp of the play's tragedy and wit.

To read CurtainUp reviews of other King Lear and Shakespeare plays, check out our Shakespeare Page

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Miller
Cast: Christopher Plummer (King Lear), Domini Blythe (Goneril), Lucy Peacock (Regan), Claire Jullien (Cordelia), Ian Deakin (Duke of Albany), Stephen Russell (Duke of Cornwall), Benedict Campbell (Earl of Kent), James Blendick (Earl of Gloucester), Brent Carver (Edgar), Geraint Wyn Davies (Edmund), Barry MacGregor (Fool), Paul O'Brien (King of France), Guy Paul (Duke of Burgundy) and Brian Tree (Oswald)
Set Design:Ralph Funicello.
Costume Design: Clare Mitchell
Lighting Design: Robert Thomson
Sound Design: Scott Anderson
Music: Berthold Carrière
Running time: Running Time: 3 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
Lincoln Center -- Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65th Street (Between Broadway and Amsterdam) 212/239-6200
2/11/04 through 4/18/04; opening 3/04.
Monday, Thursday - Sunday @7pm, Wednesday @2pm (Christopher Plummer plays 5 performances a week only).
Orchestra: $90.00; Loge: $90.00, $65.00 1 @7pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 7th press performance

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