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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear

If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I'd have thee beaten/ for being old before thy time. —Fool
How's that?—King Lear
Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst/ been wise.—Fool
 King Lear
Sam Waterston in King Lear
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Another actor has landed in hell on earth as a result of his own misguided early retirement and unwillingness to accept honesty over falsely declared unconditional love. The latest miserably doomed and old before acquiring the wisdom of age monarch wandering through the dark and stormy night on the Public Theater's Newman stage is Sam Waterston. His New York DA, Jack McCoy, is still a regular presence on our living room screens via countless Law and Order reruns even though the show's closing has retired McCoy and his colleagues from active duty — freeing Waterston to return to his roots as a stage actor with many Shakespeare roles under his belt.

As Hamlet is every young actor's dream role, so King Lear is the one he sees as the must-do of his later years. And since Waterston played Hamlet 36 years ago at the Public Theater's Central Park Production and later at the Vivian Beaumont when it was under the Public's auspices, it does indeed seem to be the right time for him to keep his date with Lear, and to do so at the Public Theater.

Waterston's image is on the Playbill cover and he's undoubtedly this King Lear's ticket selling draw. The Lear he delivers is certainly interesting, though neither his interpretation or this production overall is likely to be embraced by all theater goers.

As portrayed by Waterston Lear is volatile from the moment he enters the stage, becoming calmer and more sympathetic only after gaining wisdom painfully and too late. Instead of becoming mad gradually, he's out of control from the get-go, stamping his foot, shouting rather than speaking, and revealing himself as a man who makes decisions hastily and willfully. He's jumped into retirement before he's ready to relinquish the right to make unrealistic kingly demands for his daughter's unconditional love and willingness to let him make the lands he cedes them his and his large retinue's home as if he were still in charge. In short, this is a somewhat bi-polar monarch, a hard to love father of daughters (at least 2 out of 3) who like the perennial apples don't fall far from the tree that bore them.

The image of the title character on the Playbill notwithstanding, Waterston's name is listed in alphabetical order on the credits page, which is as it should be for King Lear is more than a star vehicle with its sequence of scenes that delineate the interconnected plots of not one but two fathers who misread their children. The main plot revolves around Lear's rejection of his honest daughter and misplaced trust in the ones who tell him what he want to hear. The subplot focuses on another wrong-headed father, the Duke of Gloucester who misreads his two sons. Whether the characters who swirl around Lear and Gloucester' are duplicitous, if not downright evil or loyal and trustworthy, the actors taking on the roles, may not always be in perfect harmony with one another, but they speak their lines with clarity.

Kelli O'Hara, best known to most theater goers as a peppy musical star, at first had me wondering if she might not have been better cast as Cordelia than Regan. But somehow, despite Lear's curses still causing her to sink to the floor covering her ears, her darker nature's emergence is believable. O'Hara's blonde, prettiness actually makes her cruelty, especially during the famous eye-gouging scene, more scary and memorable than ever. That scene, here staged with remarkably simple inventiveness, is followed by a striking non-verbal moments between Regan and her wounded husband (Frank Wood).

With Enid Graham to play her, Goneril's break with filial devotion is more immediately predictable, though given her unreasonably demanding father you almost sympathize with her wanting to be rid of him and thos hundred nights. Richard Topol, as her husband is fine as an essentially decent man caught up in a web of evil, not to mention a marriage to a woman who has her eyes on someone else.

As for Cordelia, the good sister whose honesty triggers Lear's descent into exile and madness and Edmund, the man both her nasty-girl sister lust for: Kristen Connolly does what she can with the youngest sister who for all her importance to the plot is a relatively minor presence; on the other hand Seth Gilliam as Gloucester's manipulative bastard son has plenty of opportunity to shine—and quite often does so. The actors completing the Gloucester story, with its parallels to the Lear famly saga, Michael McKean's cruelly blinded father wins our sympathy even though he could be a bit grander but Arian Moyayed as the wrongly denounced Edgar makes a strong impression, especially in his Poor Tom though his his dialogue tends to be a bit too frenzied.

John Douglas Thompson, who has in recent years become a much (and justly) praised interpreter of major classical parts (Shakespeare's Othello and Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones), is an actor who can and usually does make a big scene bigger. Yet in this production he lends his mellifluous voice to a less showy role. His Kent displays an admirable lack of bombast. His performance is probably the one that stands above all the rest. Too bad that Bill Irwin doesn't bring some of Thompson's restraint to the Fool. In his lemon yellow costume Irwin is as adept in his rubber-legged physicality as ever, but most of the time he seems to have wandered in from one of his clown shows.

The Fool's rain soaked hat is the wildest thing about this Lear's appearance which is far less disheveled than other mad ex-monarchs I've seen. Except for the Fool's canary colored outfit, Gabriel Berry's costumes range from fairly ordinary period nonspecific to a more modern look. (With lots of non-villains walking the streets of New York wearing leather, why do characters like Regan and Goneril always end up in leather as symbolic of the villainous behavior).

Director James MacDonald whose reputaton has been built around modern dramas and cutting edge rather than classic productions, has brought that sensibility with him. The result is a stage kept about as bare bones as you can get: A table covered by a red cloth underneath which is a maquette of Lear's kingdom that's about to be divided between his daughters. No chairs or other props except for a black mesh curtain through which characters will enter and exit.

The opening scene in which Lear has gathered his daughters and their husbands and other courtiers, they kneel, then stand and I expected more elaborate scenery to be rolled on stage before too long. I was wrong. Cordelia's angrily received "Nothing" is also true of the set.

What you see at the beginning is pretty much what you get in the way of scenery throughout. But that table with the marquette and that big mesh curtains do lend themselves to enough dramatics that for me worked as well as some more elaborately staged productons I've seen. Add minor props like the bench that briefly metamorphoses into Gloucester's torture rack and it turns out that the transformative effectiveness of that bare bones staging is not so "Nothing" after all.

King Lear by William Shakespeare
Directed by James MacDonald
Cast: Che Ayende (Duke of Burgundy/Knight/Servant), Craig Bockhorn (Doctor), Kristin Connolly (Cordelia), Michael Crane (Oswald), Herb Foster (Old Man/Curan), Seth Gilliam (Edmund), Enid Graham (Goneril), Bill Irwin (Fool), Michael Izquierdo (King of France), Michael McKean (Gloucester), Arian Moayed (Edgar), Kelli O’Hara (Regan), John Douglas Thompson (Kent) , Richard Topol (Albany), Sam Waterston (Lear). Frank Wood (Cornwall)
Scenic design: Miriam Buether
Costumes: Gabriel Berry
Lights: Christopher Akerlind
Sound: Darron L. West
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Vocal Consultant: Elizabeth Smith
Stage Manager: James Latus

Running Time: 3 hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.
Public Theater-Newman, 420 Lafayette Street
Tickets: $75-$85; $40 Public Theater members
From 10/18/11; opening 11/08/11; closing 11/20 /1 Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 5th press matinee

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