The Folger Theater sails into its 15th anniversary season with a majestic and mesmerizing "King Lear," as lovely to look at as it is to listen to.

The lengthy tragedy is superbly paced by director John Neville-Andrews, who maintains interest over three hours with swift, fluid scene changes and a minimum of actorish nonsense.

"King Lear" is perhaps Shakespeare's bleakest play, a despairing cry about man's flimsy hold on what seems assured, and about our impotence under indifferent, cruel or nonexistent gods. Heaven turns a deaf ear to Lear's curses and entreaties alike: The aged and embittered monarch laments, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods -- they kill us for their sport."

The familiar tale of familial jealousy and greed is full of backstabbing both figurative and literal, and the Folger is generous with the vigorous swordplay and gore.

The Folger's staging is a fine one, but frustrating in one respect. John Wylie's Lear fails to loom over the intricate action -- he's not powerful enough as the strong, vain king, and so fails to connect with the audience's emotion. Wylie's performance in the exhausting role has its merits, particularly in interpreting Lear's gentler, saner moments. But his Lear begins from a position of weakness, petulant and whiny from the start, so his downfall and decay lose their tragic impact.

With a slightly diminished Lear, the lesser characters and subplots are thrown into sharper relief. Mikal Lambert is deliciously wicked as Goneril, Lear's fiendish eldest daughter. And as the scheming bastard Edmund, Edward Gero is appropriately unctuous and amoral. Floyd King is touching as Lear's Fool, with an eerie resemblance to a gothic gargoyle.

Barbara Garrick is radiant as poor, honest Cordelia, who refuses to gush over her father, and is banished from his sight. And Richard Hart adds a bizarre comic twist, playing Goneril's hateful servant Oswald like a medieval Joan Crawford.

Designer Russell Metheny has built a dazzler of a set, an elegant and imposing bank of ruined steps flanked by shrouded columns. Lear's climactic mad scene on the stormswept heath is illuminated by Metheny's spectacular thunderstorm effect, which is so distracting with its "how-did-they-do-it?" flair that it unfortunately steals attention from Lear's histrionics. Metheny's slick settings are augmented by Stuart Duke's shadowy, atmospheric lighting and gorgeous silhouettes. Ann Hould-Ward's whimsical costumes in metallic fabrics are less successful, a uneasy cross between fairytale and Flash Gordon. KING LEAR -- At the Folger Theater through November 4.