MAKING its first U.S. tour in 13 years, the Stratford Festival of Canada brings to the Warner Theater an exemplary "King Lear," directed to a fare-thee-well by outgoing artistic director John Hirsch. It's a traditional production with contemporary -- not gimmicky -- touches. "Lear" plays in repertory with "Twelfth Night" through Sunday.
Shakespeare adapted the ancient story of the king who should not have been old till he had been wise, making it an opportunity for musing on man and mortality. Greedy for praise, eightyish King Lear decides to prematurely divide his kingdom among his three daughters, according to the lavishness of their love. Duplicitous Goneril and Regan gush shamelessly, while best-beloved Cordelia tells him the unadorned truth and is banished for her seeming ingratitude. Meanwhile, the dastardly bastard Edmunegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, frames his virtuous brother Edgar in order to win his father's title for himself.
Once they have their land, the monstrous Goneril and Regan turn on Lear, stripping him of his retinue and his sanity. They then turn on each other, and their machinations and adulteries with wicked Edmund bring ruin to all.
The acting is careful and vivid down to the spear carriers. Lear is a supremely challenging role, and Douglas Campbell is impressive, as his roaringly regal Lear becomes the maddened, ghastly pale fool on the heath. Campbell's performance is rivaled by Nicholas Pennell's bittersweet turn as Lear's wise Fool. Patricia Collins is fiendishly good as the marble- hearted Goneril, whose villainy is matched by evil Edmund, played by Benedict Campbell with a roguish swagger and many shakes of his curly blond mane.
The Stratford "Lear" is also rich in visual and aural pleasures. Chris Dyer has built an evocative set of wood towers and stone stairs, and, with Judy Peyton Ward, designed authentic-looking costumes in subdued earth tones. Michael J. Whitfield's lighting makes swift scenic changes possible, using burnished golds for court scenes and harsh whites and blues for the storm-racked heath. Stanley Silverman composed the subtly synthesized music and the stirring, sometimes startling surround-sound effects. The rattlingly real swordfights were supervised by John Broome.