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This ‘King Lear’ might be the best our theater critic has ever seen

Director Simon Godwin’s sleek production, with a consummate Patrick Page as the vain and foolish king, is definitive

From left: Matthew J. Harris, Michael Milligan, Patrick Page and Shirine Babb in “King Lear,” directed by Simon Godwin at Shakespeare Theatre Company. (DJ Corey)
6 min

Patrick Page got to me. By that I mean Page gets it so right as the vain, aging ruler stripped of dignity and, ultimately, sanity that Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “King Lear” stands as one of the best versions of the tragedy I’ve ever seen. Maybe even the best.

And I’ve seen lots. Director Simon Godwin pares down Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy to a sleek and riveting 2½ hours, which compresses and intensifies the devastating impact of a story that ricochets from paranoia to poetry to horror to heartbreak. I can’t remember the last time the reunion in captivity of remorseful Lear and pure-hearted Cordelia (played by Lily Santiago), the daughter he foolishly disowned, left me so moved.

The responsibility for this ecstatic outcome in the Klein Theatre can be spread among many actors and designers in this modern-dress enterprise. To name a few: Shirine Babb’s Kent and Michael Milligan’s Fool, who envelop Lear here in a touching mist of authentic devotion; Julian Elijah Martinez and Matthew J. Harris as villainous Edmund and heroic Edgar, brothers whose rivalry ends in a savage knife fight choreographed muscularly by Robb Hunter; and costumer Emily Rebholz, who wittily overdresses Lear’s viperish elder daughters — the delightfully vile Rosa Gilmore and Stephanie Jean Lane — as if they were cast members on “The Real Housewives of Stratford-upon-Avon.”

Parker Posey is playing a classic Chekhov character and having a ball

And of course, centrally and captivatingly, Page’s Lear allows you to see the king’s decline, from arrogant entitlement to desolate madness, in an almost clinical, step-by-step disintegration. The personal puffing up that occurs when too much power is bestowed too lavishly upon one person is rewardingly transparent at the start of Lear’s downward spiral. Seated at a ceremonial desk in an airplane hangar, doling out portions of his kingdom to simpering Goneril (Gilmore) and Regan (Lane), this Lear wears the infuriating smirk of a glutton for praise. And when Page showily holds aloft the proclamations dividing Lear’s kingdom, you’re reminded of the hubris of another recent leader, seated behind the Oval Office desk grandiosely doing the same.

The success of this production affirms the exciting new era, stalled a bit by the pandemic, that Godwin has ushered in since becoming the classical company’s artistic director in 2019. With his recent “Much Ado About Nothing” and now his “King Lear,” the British director is beginning to fulfill the exemplary mission he set out himself, for a “vigorous, rapturous, romantic” approach to American Shakespeare in Washington.

This “Lear” unfolds with the confidence a resourceful director wields in eloquently hurtling the story through one calamity after another. The scenes on the stormy heath, in which a despondent Lear — humiliated by the two daughters to whom he has bequeathed his kingdom — loses his mind, can sometimes lumber along as if we have all night. Here, they erupt in a thunderclap of rage and mania and swiftly culminate in Lear and his shabby party taking refuge in decaying wreckage left over from one of his wars.

Damaged remains are an apt metaphor for this “Lear”: The obsolescence associated with old age is invoked so often that one gets the impression Shakespeare himself was obsessing about his own eventual dotage (the play premiered toward the latter end of his career).

“The younger rises when the old doth fall,” declares Edmund, a son so contemptuous of his elders that he’s complicit when Cornwall (Yao Dogbe) plucks out the eyes of Edmund’s father, Craig Wallace’s noble Gloucester. It happens gruesomely in front of us, in the play’s most barbaric moment, a marker of the depravity that afflicts this royal family. We can add ageism, it seems, to the scroll of foul impulses harbored by the multiple baddies of the drama, who also noteworthily include Todd Scofield’s officious Oswald, Goneril’s butler, attired in the red uniform of a demonic concierge.

The intertwining plots of “Lear” are both about ungrateful heirs of easily duped fathers — if only their wives were still around to set their families straight. But they are also about the saving graces of other offspring, Cordelia and Edgar, who redeem our faith in the future. In the centuries after Shakespeare’s death, “Lear” was considered so dispiriting that writers altered the ending to allow Cordelia to survive and marry Edgar.

Godwin, of course, takes the full measure of the drama’s bitter consequences. Daniel Soule’s set emphasizes the cold, gray atmosphere of Lear’s domain, with movable sections of wall that could have been repurposed from the metal skin of an army barracks, or even a Costco. We’ve entered a land whose population has been ground down by unkindness. So much so that when the King of France (Hunter Ringsmith) offers to marry Cordelia moments after Lear repudiates her, the gesture is meant to come as a shock.

Lear’s comeuppance is the cruel wage he pays for his disastrous misjudgments. And Page is an extraordinary conveyor of the king’s highs and lows. Broadway audiences know this actor, with a voice that resonates like the bottom note on a keyboard, from dark characters in musicals: Hades in “Hadestown,” the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Washington knows him as a consummate Shakespearean, in “Coriolanus” and “Othello”; his Iago was a calculating predator of the variety that might be featured on NBC’s “Dateline.”

On this occasion, he and Godwin portray that inconsolable anger as unlocking a chamber in Lear’s brain, permitting delusion to enter. The transition makes sense: He has been unwise, the architect of his own downfall, but he’s not an idiot. Rummaging in a bag of fast food trash on the heath, he pulls out a paper crown — he’s now merely a Burger King. There’s a flicker of ironic recognition in the old man yet, for Shakespeare’s verse still flows elegantly out of Page’s basso instrument.

Santiago’s commanding Cordelia disappears for a long stretch of “King Lear”: She returns toward the end of the play, to try to save her father’s kingdom, only to be captured by her sisters’ forces and imprisoned with her anguished, repentant father. Even if it’s too late to make a difference, benevolent reconciliation between father and daughter warms the English air. Their day may be lost. But our hearts have been won.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Simon Godwin. Set, Daniel Soule; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew; sound, Christopher Shutt; choreography, Jonathan Goddard; projections, Aaron Rhyne; composer, Michael Bruce; fight choreography Robb Hunter. With Jake Loewenthal, Raven Lorraine, Terrance Fleming, Ryan Neely, Bekah Zornosa. About 2½ hours. Through April 8 at Klein Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW.