nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 2, 2007
Note: What follows assumes knowledge of the play and contains lots of spoilers, so be warned. If you want a synopsis, try this.
Even before the show proper begins, James Lapine's new rendition of Shakespeare's great play King Lear gets underway, with three girls—who we understand are the young princesses Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia—strolling on stage to color a map, presumably of their father's dominion. If King Lear is in fact a great play, does it need this added bit of foreshadowing to crank-start it?
This production, the centerpiece of the Public Theater's 51st season, manages to highlight all the stuff that's difficult and unplayable in King Lear. When the play actually begins, it gets right down to the business of the old egocentric king divvying up his territory among his three daughters. Who loves him most, he asks, and the elder two, Goneril and Regan, oblige with brown-nosing platitudes that are delivered with equal mixtures of avarice and malice, which is to say with the subtlety of, oh, Phil Silvers in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Cordelia, the good daughter, refuses to play this game. But as Lapine and his actors set the thing up, we wonder: why not?
This is problematic.
But then, so much here is. The set by Heidi Ettinger is elaborate and impressive, except that the big coup-de-theatre set change has to be accomplished with the aid of several actors, among them Michael Cerveris (who plays the Earl of Kent), here required to pick up some curtains and clear them off the stage. The costumes by Jess Goldstein are contemporary, but the men nonetheless all carry knives, just like you and I do, and when Cordelia returns at long last to her father from France, she's dressed more or less like Joan of Arc and apparently means to invade England, which doesn't feel 21st century at all. The much-ballyhooed original score by Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin sounds like a collection of minimalist chords left over from Sunday in the Park with George—nice to hear, I guess, but not terribly illuminating in context, and conferred here with so much dignity that it can't be called "incidental," even though that's what it clearly is.
Lear's Fool (Philip Goodwin) has a Harpo Marx wig and some sort of Japanese woodblock thingy attached to his arm, which he bangs on to accent his speeches/jokes like a demented postmodern performance artist. The scene where Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, gouge out the eyes of Gloucester, lasts many minutes longer than it should, as if it were part of a cult bloodfest B-horror film. The scenes where Kevin Kline as Lear loses his mind made me think, repeatedly, of a Monty Python sketch called "Great Actors."
Logan Marshall-Green is pretty much a disaster as Gloucester's scheming bastard son Edmond, resorting to the most pedestrian of gestures to illustrate speeches that he fails to put over. On the other hand, Brian Avers acquits himself pretty reasonably as the good/legitimate son Edgar, and Michael Rudko and especially Daniel Pearce are quite convincing as Lear's sons-in-law (respectively, Albany and Cornwall). Kline speaks the language gloriously, but does not show us what's going on behind it. This is, resoundingly, a Lear that leaves us emotionally flat.
After nearly three-and-a-half hours of this, I made my way thankfully to the exit, at last free to go home. Shakespeare on stage should not be as grueling and lead-footed as this production turns out to be. But those poor little girls told me right up front what kind of evening I was in for.