Theater Review: Peter Marks on 'King Lear' at the Shakespeare Theatre

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

When the misguided monarch presents his daughters with the keys to his kingdom in director Robert Falls's sensational, Slavic "King Lear," it's as if they unlock the gates of hell. In shockingly short order, his realm is reduced to killing field, a land of such ruthless butchery that the mounting corpses cannot be rushed to burial fast enough.

The notion of a Lear who up till now has managed somehow to keep a lid on his people's rivalries and blood feuds makes all-too-tragic sense in the production that Falls has brought from Chicago's Goodman Theatre and restaged for Shakespeare Theatre Company. Transposing the events to modern-day Eastern Europe -- we are in a country not unlike Marshal Tito's ethnically straitjacketed Yugoslavia -- proves to be an astute conceit, too. As recent history records, that nation came unglued, horror by barbaric horror, a decade after Tito's death.

For such a bold concept to succeed (and I've seen enough of this sort of thing lapse into head-scratching hokey-ness), you need a Lear who can inspire belief in the dynamism of a man to be the national glue. Falls found that man in the commanding Stacy Keach, who with virile authority dextrously charts the poignant course of Lear's decline, from monstrous royal arrogance to poignantly human self-knowledge.

The parallel between the king's disintegration and the kingdom's is handled marvelously here; the idea is investigated with a degree of intelligence that you encounter only in the very best productions of Shakespeare. Both Lear and his country go haywire, but on this occasion, the permutations of madness are as different as a nursery rhyme and an opera. For as Lear retreats by measured degree into the domain of his confused dotage, the realm at large is convulsed in violence of a magnitude that makes a fetish of suffering.

Mind you, Falls's "Lear" itself is no ordeal. It's a macabre romp -- big and wild and, in its lusty embrace of theatrical possibility, a tingly pleasure. The first act -- concerned largely with the dire practical consequences to Lear of his having foolishly divvied up the kingdom for his vile elder daughters, Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and Regan (Kate Arrington) -- runs an hour and 40 minutes. And I mean runs. With the assistance of the superb Walt Spangler -- whose designs for the stage of Sidney Harman Hall suggest the tacky indulgences of a corrupt regime plopped at times onto the set of Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" -- this "Lear" dashes from one scabrously funny tableau to the next.

The evening begins in a sardonically mesmerizing vein, with a scene that is an entire play all by itself. Lear's palace is rendered here by Spangler as a garish, gilded banquet hall, of the kind that caters to people with too much money and too little class. It's a bacchanal for the king in which the debauched guests all but choke on the excess. A dark-haired DJ (Dieterich Gray) who has blond highlights does some Balkan beatbox, while the celebrants dance and cavort in taut little frenzies. Goneril and Regan are decked out as if they were high-priced call girls, Martin-Cotten in full-length mink, Arrington in a hot-pink party dress. (To these actresses' enormous credit, the relationship between this spoiled-rotten pair is clearly defined from the get-go, with Martin-Cotten's Goneril the malevolent instigator in chief.)

Cordelia, the cast-aside good daughter, played by Laura Odeh with equal parts passion and steel, is dressed in chic black -- a hipster heroine -- by designer Ana Kuzmanic. But the dominant image in the hall is the king and more to the point, an immense, gold-framed portrait of him in his younger days -- a time, presumably, when his rule was more just. For the Lear who enters in white shoes and powder-blue suit seems more Saddam than Solomon. Shed of his nobility, he's become reckless in his old age, a leader who views the serious question of succession as, quite literally, a piece of cake.

The monumental vanity that Keach projects helps pave the way for the grotesque acts to come: The elder daughters on this occasion seem fruit of the poisoned tree. The toxic atmosphere extends naturally to the household of Lear loyalist Gloucester (a terrific Edward Gero). His son Edmund -- portrayed with coldblooded carnality by Jonno Roberts -- plots the ruin of his brother Edgar (the solid Joaquin Torres) while applying for a power upgrade in the beds of Goneril and Regan.

We know no good will come of this: Lear's coming-to-terms with both his own mortality and the enormity of his hubris is what drives the evening toward catharsis. (Howard Witt's touchingly fragile Fool is the very embodiment of rueful endings.) Still, it's awfully entertaining, watching everything shatter. In a scene that could have been cut from "Pulp Fiction," a muscled, reptilian Cornwall (Chris Genebach) plucks out the eyes of Gloucester on the floor of his and Regan's high-end kitchen. Cornwall will get his soon enough, too, in one of the evening's many nightmarishly rewarding moments of comeuppance.

What this particular king unleashes not only brings about his own suffering -- Keach's scenes in and after the storm on the heath, find an ineffable art in madness -- but also that of his people. Deep into the evening, the director adds a sequence of elegiac solemnity, choreographed to the music of what sounds like a chorus of mourners.

It's a provocative embellishment on an enriching, nervy night of Shakespeare, one that inventively recharges the batteries of a play that sometimes can sag under the humbling weight of its renown. That sense of letdown never occurs in Harman Hall. The production's got so much going for it, in fact, you might want to go again.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Falls. Sets, Walt Spangler; costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, Michael Philippi; sound, Richard Woodbury; fight director, Rick Sordelet; voice and text, Ellen O'Brien. With Andrew Long, Steve Pickering, Aubrey Deeker, Brian MacDonald, Gary Neal Johnson, Hugh Nees, Conrad Feininger, David Blixt, Dan Istrate. About 3 hours 10 minutes. Through July 19 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit or call 202-547-1122.

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