Among the many reasons we go back continually to the classics, one, I think, stands above all others: They can never be fully revealed in a single production.
Like some mysterious country, they offer the traveler the possibility of multiple itineraries. Each route may have its share of magnificent scenery and tribal astonishments, but no route yields up the land and its people in their totality. So we book ourselves for a return voyage, hoping the second, or maybe the third time around, to see more.
Shakespeare's "King Lear" is one of those plays, so vast in its physical and emotional dimensions that it would be folly to expect the Folger Theatre -- or any theater group -- to embrace it all. From the start, we know we will get to the heart of only some matters. But what we can expect and what the Folger delivers in this, the opening production of its 15th season, is a distinctive perspective.
I think that's why -- midway through this arduous (three hour-plus), often vivid production that opened last night -- I jotted down "Punch and Judy show" on the back of my program. I suddenly realized the Folger was coming at the tragedy from a slant I never would have envisioned myself. The actors certainly weren't behaving like puppets, although I suppose a case could be made that "King Lear" is a kind of metaphysical puppet show that elevates man's most brutal aggressions to the realm of high art. My impression may have been inspired, in part, by the fantastical costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward, which suggest a marriage of Bruegel and Walt Disney and lend the aura of a poisonous enchantment to the proceedings.
Then it dawned on me. Shakespeare's tragedy had been boxed in, as if in a marionette theater. Usually, directors go just the other way, attempting to expand the stage to encompass the bleak expanse of the heath and the rage of Mother Nature that breaks over the play like a curse. Yet here was director John Neville-Andrews, bringing the action as far forward as he could, putting limits on the vistas other productions struggle to achieve, tilting the stage up, almost as if he wanted to spill the actors into our laps.
Russell Metheny's set consists of 10 steps rising steeply to a backdrop that is alternately bathed in red, orange, steel blue and icy white. The bright, solid colors are like a wall, stopping the eye, turning it back. By frequently silhouetting his actors against that backdrop, in fact, Neville-Andrews enhances the notion that the tragedy is unfolding in a world of strange shadow puppets.
The columns that border the Folger's Elizabethan stage have been wrapped in canvas and rope, put out of commission, as it were. Everything, you see, is to be concentrated in a limited rectangular space. The actors frequently enter from behind, rising swiftly up out of the bowels of the theater -- as if an unseen puppeteer were thrusting them into view.
Let me mention one other detail that may give you a bead on the production's unusual perspective. Spurned by Goneril and Regan, his spiteful daughters, Lear and the fool are thrown out onto the heath like curs. Lear's wits are as chaotic as the storm that is rending the air. Man and nature have merged in fury and the scene is usually a cue to open the stage as widely as the theater's resources will allow. Neville-Andrews reverses the tactic. Torrents of rain water cascade down the steps toward the audience. The movement is all forward.
The approach makes for intimacy, yes, and immediacy. But it's not the usual face-to-face immediacy you sometimes get at the Folger. The very height and shallowness of the set are such that you will find yourself looking up at the players most of the time. That angle has the subliminal, but real effect of making you feel like a tot all over again.
As a result, you are apt to come away with an insight into "King Lear" that you never had before: the basic fairy-tale aspect of the play, which is, after all, about a king, who divides up his kingdom unthinkingly, his two wicked daughters, as villainous as Cinderella's stepsisters, and the one good and pure daughter, Cordelia, who is punished for the honesty of her heart. The action has been transported to a never-never land, the fringes of which are populated by bizarre Goyaesque creatures, long of claw and sharp of beak, and the characters' emotions tend to take on a once-upon-a-timelessness.
Granted, John Wylie does not have the towering majesty you may want in your Lear, but he is adept at emphasizing the fussy, petulant side of the monarch. The actor is strongest, curiously enough, in weakness, finding sad, delicate shadings to the pathetic nature of a man stripped of power, children and finally his wits. Floyd King, looking as if he just emerged from a cobweb, endows the fool with a misshapen torso and an ineffable sweetness of nature that belies the downward swoop of his mouth. It's a lovely exotic performance that highlights the beauty in the beast.
Not all of the performances are of this caliber and there are times when the Folger's "Lear" forgets its special orientation and resorts to the old declamatory ways. But in the large cast of characters, feeding on duplicity as if it were one of the basic elements, you will notice the cool, snippy control of Vivienne Argent (Regan), the boyish malevolence of Edward Gero (Edmund) and, by contrast, the earnest decency of Jim Beard (Kent). Frank Groseclose, as the loyal Gloucester, may not convince you of his moral stature, but once his eyes are plucked from his head and his spirit crumbles, he is a touching ruin, the eighth dwarf Disney never dared imagine.
More than the performances, however, it's the climate at the Folger that's unusual. "Lear" is surely the most unflinching of Shakespeare's works, a fierce confrontation with mankind's basest impulses. The rampant darkness is lit only by the flickering goodness of a misunderstood daughter, a faithful retainer or a fool who cracks dangerously seditious jokes and then, as King does, slaps his thigh repeatedly while mouthing gales of silent laughter.
Approaching so much evil with a child's eyes, the Folger has charted a new path through a huge, intimidating work. It is certainly not the only way and it downplays some of Shakespeare's thorny ambiguities. But at the same time, it adds oddly to our perception of a wondrous and terrible landscape.
Like any reasonably mannered member of the audience, I sat up straight, still and attentive in my chair. So why, I ask myself in retrospect, did I sometimes feel I was sitting on the ground, cross-legged, waiting and watching for not only Lear and Goneril, but maybe Punch and Judy, to have at one another?
KING LEAR. By William Shakespeare. Directed by John Neville-Andrews. Sets, Russell Metheny; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; lighting, Stuart Duke; fights, Michael Tolaydo; sound, Paul Langer. With John Wylie, Mikel Lambert, Vivienne Argent, Barbara Garrick, Alessandro Cima, Frank Groseclose, Jim Beard, Richard Hart, Edward Gero, Michael Tolaydo. At the Folger Theatre through Nov. 4.