By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 5, 2005
BALTIMORE -- It isn't only his remorseless daughters, Goneril and Regan, who want to cut King Lear down to size. Directors of Shakespeare's tragedies have that hankering these days, too.
The relentless decline of the egotistical, leonine Lear, culminating in his stormy interlude on the heath, can seem emotionally ornate, at least in a time when the rage onstage is for characters in Shakespeare who resemble the rest of us, in all our ordinariness. (For additional evidence, see Patrick Page's faceless bureaucrat of an Iago in Shakespeare Theatre's current "Othello.")
Ordinary is indeed the operative word for Center Stage's modern-dress mounting of "King Lear." In fact, it's a kind one. Dull would be more apt. Director Irene Lewis has in this leaden outing opted for a telling of the story that drains the juice and leaves behind only flavorless pulp. As with the king himself, an audience exits the worse for wear.
With its unforgiving ruminations on self-delusion and mortality, "King Lear" can be an icy play. What takes the chill off most rewardingly are performances of stature: a fierce, alpha-masculine Lear; a magnetically despicable Edmund, the bad-boy son of Gloucester; an achingly ardent Cordelia, the daughter Lear casts out for refusing to kowtow to his vanity.
In the Center Stage production, the actors playing these characters forge no urgent bonds with one another, and the result is a rendition of the extra-dry variety. Stephen Markle's Lear, for instance, embodies none of the royal arrogance, or even the petulant need, that would explain his explosive anger at a daughter who fails to fawn when he offers her a slice of his kingdom. The arc of Lear's tragedy depends upon an appreciation of the magnitude of his hubris when he's on top; it's the only way to feel anything after he recognizes his folly, and after it's too late. Markle portrays him as a man of less than voracious entitlement, and so he seems rather small, inconsequential. His anguished wanderings on the heath, where he rails at the elements, add up less to a tempest than a drizzle.
Heidi Armbruster's Cordelia is similarly miscalculated; there is a warrior-like quality to the portrayal that leaves little room for soft, daughterly affection. Lear's bearing of Cordelia's body, normally the eye-welling climax of the play, is here, quite literally, a drag. And although Jon David Casey's Edmund is physically imposing -- he projects some of the devilish insouciance of a young Sting -- he spends more time giving an audience the fisheye than creating a compellingly dislikable blackguard. (Exceptions in the cast are Laurence O'Dwyer, whose shambles of a Fool offers a convincingly humane portrait of the propping up of a friend, and Tony Ward's resourceful and athletic Edgar, the blinded Gloucester's steadfast son.)
Lewis is Center Stage's artistic director, and she has shown a deftness of late with classics of a more modern vintage, such as Shaw's "Misalliance" and Harley Granville-Barker's "Voysey Inheritance." Here, locked into a more abstracted concept, she is on shakier ground. Lear's domain is rendered by set designer Robert Israel as a flimsy shell, his world contained in a Beckett-style bleakness. The stage is divided vaguely into dingy, modern rooms. From the set's walls to the king's idea of himself as father and leader, things here are prone to fall apart.
This staging, however, yields too often to affectation. A musician (Karen Hansen) strolls in and out intermittently with an electric guitar or accordion. At one point she plays keyboard on what appears to be an Apple laptop. You greet each of these self-conscious touches much as you do the entire enterprise: with a yawn.
King Lear , by William Shakespeare. Directed by Irene Lewis. Set, Robert Israel; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, David Budries; fight director, J. Allen Suddeth. With Diana LaMar, Sarah Knowlton, David Adkins, David Cromwell, Conan McCarty, Michael Rudko. Approximately three hours. Through Nov. 6 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore. Call 410-332-0033 or visit http://www.centerstage.org .