Unpleasant To Watch Mr. Lear

Stacy Keach is rather wonderful as Lear in the Shakespeare Theatre's re-mounting of a production first done at Chicago's Goodman Theater.

The great danger of Lear for an actor is to overact the part and reduce yourself to just stomping around the stage like a T-Rex all night long. Keach never does that, and excels at finding the humor in Lear --of which there's quite a bit for anyone paying attention to the text. There's much wisdom --or at least wry and apt observance-- in Lear's mad moments (his Fool having died, he becomes his own Fool), and Keach makes the most of them. It's a touching performance and he manages to make you kind of like one of Shakespeare's least sympathetic characters.

Laura Odeh has a really interesting take on Cordelia as well. Cordelia too I usually find hard to like; she may be noble, but there's always the whiff of the self-righteous in her as most actresses play her being horrified at her elder sisters' gross flattery. In this production, the opening scenes take place in the midst of a raucous party, with Lear passing the microphone around to his daughters for their toasts. Odeh plays Cordelia completely straight: enjoying the party, laughing good-naturedly at her sisters' flattery, and delivering her sober answer with innocent confidence that its wisdom and superior depth will be recognized. She is truly astonished by her father's response, and the rest of the actors on the stage indicate through awkward silence that everyone in the room but Lear knows he is abusing Cordelia and making an ass of himself; the scene is keenly observed.

Alas, that is all the good I can report. Director Robert Falls, Lear-like himself, cedes control of the production to the two wicked sisters of set design and "concept" (daughters who might amount to something if a superior authority keeps them in line, but make a mess of things when left to run amok).

The production takes place in the Balkans and the battle scenes are meant to evoke the conflict in Bosnia, complete with an onstage ethnic cleansing and dumping bodies into mass graves. There is much onstage torture in the last act, including an eye-gouging scene so well-played I almost literally vomited (you don't actually see anything). From this I gather we're to conclude War Is Hell and Torture Is Bad, but mostly I found myself thinking that Mr. Falls thinks there's not enough drama in Shakespeare's play, so he took it upon himself to add some. Seemed arrogant to me, not to mention he has noble Kent on the point of committing an unspeakable act until he's restrained by others --totally out of character.

The Balkans concept allows him to place all the scenes of Edgar hiding in the wilderness and Lear's mad dance in the storm at the city dump. Huge bags of trash, bombed out cars and muck strew the landscape. Sigh. The designers are skilled and everything technical is well-observed, but I am just so over city dump scenes in contemporary settings of ancient plays. During the 90s, it seemed like every classical play and opera was staged in black "fascist" costumes. Here in the Aughts, everything's set at the dump. (Gee, Directors, would that be a metaphor, by any chance? You guys take a meeting every decade to decide these things?)

Then the thunder and lightning and later the loud bombings and spluttering helicopters offstage are so loud many lines are lost. The two bad sisters are just awful. Playing up 21st century slutty, they're so busy swaggering about the room they don't seem to understand what their lines actually mean and in some instances actually place the emphasis on the wrong word in the sentence --I'm not talking difference of interpretation, I'm talking not fully understanding the implication of what's being said. It's the kind of mistake directors who care about acting and texts can channel an actor away from --but directors who are only looking at the scenery overlook.

I guess I should warn potential viewers there is nudity, too, although it's nothing prurient and it takes place in the dark and shadowy storm and is totally called for by the script. Edgar runs around nekkid and Lear strips down in imitation. In the very last scene, Lear carries out a naked Cordelia. Her modesty is somewhat preserved by artfully placed cords, but her body bears the marks of an obviously brutal beating and rape. As I say, I think Director Robert Falls let his updating run away with the actual play.