In the new production of "King Lear" at the Shakespeare Theatre, Ted van Griethuysen plays the tragic king as if he'd never heard of the role, much less been told it was one of the great ones. The freshness and humility of his performance are a tribute to his discipline and integrity. Van Griethuysen is masterly and heart-rending, but quiet, almost self-effacing, one among many, as the king he is playing learns to be.

Director Michael Kahn has stridden right up to this unbearably anguished play and stared straight into its abyss. Critics have often said that "King Lear" is in fact undoable, a great poem rather than a great play, and it's the great poem of death and failed love that Kahn presents. Kahn can direct productions that go up your spine like an electric shock, but this isn't one of them. Like his brilliant "Peer Gynt," this "Lear" is cold--cold as the ashes of love.

An ancient king, looking to spend his last years in peaceful retirement, plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. With silly vanity, he decides he will give the largest portion to the daughter who tells him most fulsomely how much she loves him. When the youngest refuses to play this game, he banishes her in a fit of pique and gives everything to her elder sisters.

This, the beginning of the play, is like the opening of a fairy tale, and on one level "King Lear" has the simple power of a fable: Once upon a time there was an old king who made a dreadful mistake, and this is what then befell him . . .

On the other hand, there is enough psychological realism to the characters for the audience to try to make emotional sense of their actions, and on this level Shakespeare is not forthcoming.

There are hints that bad daughters Goneril and Regan (Tana Hicken and Jennifer Harmon) harbor some legitimate resentment, since their father always preferred Cordelia (Monique Holt), but the play never develops this, and other elements contradict it. When we first meet him, Lear is mercurial, autocratic and, frankly, unpleasant, but somehow he has managed to gain the love of all the "good" characters in the play: Cordelia, the Fool (Floyd King) and Kent (Henry Woronicz). And in the play's parallel story, Gloucester (David Sabin) claims he loves his son. But at the first slur against the boy, he is willing to believe the worst.

Shakespeare doesn't resolve these contradictions and neither does Kahn. So, unable to get a firm grip on what is happening psychologically, the audience is more or less forced into a detached appreciation of the play's dread grandeur. This isn't the same as an emotional experiencing of "King Lear," but it's still enough: The dark vacuum fills us, as tragedy is supposed to, with pity and terror.

Kahn's most radical innovation is his treatment of Cordelia and the Fool. Cordelia cannot speak and communicates through signing, which is then translated by the Fool--in essence, giving the Fool all Cordelia's lines. King is a lovely Fool--clever and kindly--and it's a pleasure to see him given more room in the play, but I could have done without the character's being dragged onstage at the end, dead, so that Lear can mourn over him as well as Cordelia. Cordelia, whose father cannot hear the true meaning of her words, works conceptually as a mute; the symbolism somewhat overwhelms Holt's performance, which is emotionally conventional.

This is a production that is more about the terrible amoral universe the characters must face than it is about the characters themselves. Nonetheless it's strongly acted--by Hicken and Harmon as the evil daughters, Sabin as the foolish Gloucester, Andrew Long as Gloucester's wicked son Edmund, Woronicz as the stalwart Kent, Ralph Cosham as Regan's sleek, nasty husband and William Whitehead as the alcoholic, fed-up spouse of Goneril. In the role of Gloucester's ill-treated good son, Edgar, who has to spend part of the play pretending to run mad as a beggarman on the moor, Cameron Folmar is overwhelmed--but it can be argued that he's up against the most difficult role in the play.

The design--set and costumes by Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili, lights by Howell Binkley, music by David Van Tieghem--is magnificent. The production begins with a long, low rumble of thunder, under which we catch an ambivalent human noise, a laugh or a sob. The set is dark, corroding corrugated metal, a machine frozen by rust, though at certain moments we hear a deep, awful, grinding sound, as if that machine were moving again. The costumes are black, white and gray except for the few virtuous characters who defiantly, and as it turns out hopelessly, sport colors of nature and life: scarlet (Cordelia), green (Kent) and washed-out brown (the Fool).

Lear, as van Griethuysen's performance subtly emphasizes, is facing death. Though his daughters are depicted as of childbearing age, he is specifically said to be over 80--an old man. Only love--which is here depicted solely as father-child love; this is a world without mothers--can warm us in the face of that final cold; the place we count on for love, the family, is in "King Lear" deformed and full of hate, a killing field. The play is a maelstrom--we plunge down it into Nothing.

"Nothing" is a word that crops up a lot in the text, and Kahn makes sure you hear it every time. It tolls through the play like a grim bell. Tragedy is defined as a vast emptiness.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn. Vocal coach, Kate Wilson; assistant director, PJ Paparelli. With David DeBesse, Christopher Wilson, Patrick Ellison Shea, Dean Avery, Phil Sawicki, Bill Hamlin. At the Shakespeare Theatre through Oct. 24. Call 202-547-1122.

CAPTION: Ted van Griethuysen as the king and David Sabin as the blinded Gloucester.

CAPTION: Ted van Griethuysen as King Lear: The play's dark vacuum fills us, as tragedy is supposed to, with pity and terror.