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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear

The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself.
—Act I, scene ii
Chukwudi Iwuji and Clarke Peters
C. Iwuji and C. Peters (Photo: Joan Marcus)
No one would deny that recent years have been witness to an abundance of productions of King Lear. While the audience at the Delacorte is informed by Oskar Eustis that it has been over four decades since it was last presented in the park, the Public has given us two renditions downtown in this century (Kevin Kline in 2007 and Sam Waterston in 2011). And there have been at least two notable Lears elsewhere in town within the last year alone (Langella at BAM, Pennington at TFANA). And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

We could have all sorts of interesting debates about what historical, sociological or other forces make Lear of particular interest today (and I offer my own theory below), but I think a lot of us would agree that the bottom line is that it's just a great play. Like that other really great play that gets done a lot, it can be a puzzle: who is sane and who has gone nuts? who is good and who is evil? and is the play just a domestic drama wrapped in some of the most beautiful language ever written? (A separate interesting discussion we could but won't have here is how many other parallels we can identify between the two plays.)

What this combination of greatness and frequency of production leaves us with is one unavoidable question: what is it about this production that distinguishes it? The good and bad news is that we have to look away from the conventional focus to find our answer.

Before I get to that, let me return to my theory on the question of frequency. I think -- and I think the evidence bears this out -- that it mostly has to do with actors of a certain stature who have reached the point that they believe it is "time" to scale Lear. John Lithgow, this production's Lear, thus follows in the footsteps of the aforementioned Lears, among many others, in being deemed "ready" for the role; I suggest that is the driving force here.

The harvest from this readiness is, alas, not as bountiful as one might have hoped, and that is true as well of the three daughters: Annette Bening as Goneril, Jessica Hecht as Regan and Jessica Collins as Cordelia. None of these central performances are affirmatively bad, but none are distinguished either. All seem to have adopted a "posture," with the result being a lot of emoting and not very much emotion. Despite his estimable track record, I suppose one has no choice but to attribute this to the show's director, Daniel Sullivan.

Most of the main supporting characters -- Albany (Christopher Innvar), Cornwall (Glenn Fleshler), the Fool (Steven Boyer), Kent (Jay O. Sanders) -- fare better, whereas Eric Sheffer Stevens's Edmund is an enigma -- providing little of the villainy or the sexual magnetism that is required. Which brings us to the two performances that do bring distinction to this production -- Clarke Peters as Gloucester and Chukwudi Iwuji as Edgar/Poor Tom. Individually and especially together, they provide the strongest heartbeat in this production, and they are exceptional. So much so that someone seeing this Lear as their first might reasonably wonder why they are not considered the central characters.

Speaking of heartbeats, there are others to be found in Dan Moses Schreier's surprisingly effective percussive score, much of which is recorded but which is augmented by frequent live "drumming" on two large sheets of metal, stage left and stage right. The overall sound design (Acme Sound Partners) is excellent. Actually, all of the design elements are.

On first viewing, John Lee Beatty's set struck me as all wrong for the park: he had the nerve to erect a funky looking high upstage wall blocking the landscape that is usually exploited at the Delacorte. But that wall was used to repeatedly excellent effect, and in doing so relied on the fine collaboration of Jeff Croiter (whose lighting design was consistently good throughout) and especially of Tal Yarden, whose video design brought that (hideous) wall to life (nowhere to greater effect than in the storm and battle scenes). Susan Hilferty complemented everything with costume design that was muted and yet quite colorful. I must add one final shout-out: Rick Sordelet's fight direction ratcheted up the violence in most exciting fashion.

So while overall this production qualifies as the first stumble in the park in quite a while, it was not without its pleasures, and it ended up distinguishing itself in some unexpected ways. It was briskly paced and pared of excess (the scheduled three hour running time extended by a quarter hour the night I saw it due, I suspect, to daunting lines at the facilities). Lear twice reminds us that nothing comes of nothing, a truism manifesting itself in the compelling realization that this great play is really something that cannot hide itself.



King Lear
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan
with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Annette Bening, Jeremy Bobb, Steven Boyer, Andrew Burnap, Jessica Collins, Tristan Farmer, Glenn Fleshler, Christopher Ghaffari, Ryan-James Hatanaka, Jessica Hecht, Matt Helm, Kevis Hillocks, Slate Holmgren, Joseph Hoover, Christopher Innvar, Chukwudi Iwuji, Dave Klasko, John Lithgow, Ara Morton, Clarke Peters, Dale Place, Jay O. Sanders, Phillip Shinn, Eric Sheffer Stevens, Shane Ziegler
Set Design: John Lee Beatty
Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier
Running Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Delacorte Theater, Central Park (enter park at 81st St/CPW or 79th St/5th Av)
Public Theater website:
Opening August 5, 2014, closing August 17, 2014
Tues-Sun @8; FREE
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 8/2/14 performance
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