nytheatre.com review by Heather McAllister
November 5, 2011
King Lear is a monster of a play, and at 3 1/2 hours, the version now playing at The Public is a monster of a production. Surely this show could use some trimming. But where?
Simple, elegant, stunning design by Miriam Buether. A clean, logical mix of modern elements seamlessly interspersed with classics. Gorgeous use of color: a steel gray curtain of chain mail set against creamy off white walls. A brown “dirt” floor, and vibrant silver, gold, and bright primary colors in the costumes by Gabriel Berry. The effect is really cool. Functional, gorgeous and simple. Timeless.
Bold, spare use of sound effects, keyboard sounding “trumpet” calls, booming machine guns and bombs during the terrifying war, and thunder and lightning so loud, so bright, it made me jump in my seat.
Director James MacDonald paints beautiful stage pictures, and the actors take their time to find the heart of each scene, each interaction, each moment. Not a moment is wasted.
Sam Waterston, a vibrant, energetic, sexy Lear, struts and marches, stamps and gambols, runs so fast with his fury that when he slows down to take a peek at what’s really happening in his world, it’s dizzying. As his kingdom spins out of control, as his madness creeps in, Waterston’s Lear stands strong, each machination against him, each realization, each loss is a sharply felt cut. Most poignantly, his Lear is above all a father. And our greatest love, our greatest hope, our greatest loss as parents comes in our children. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth” indeed. I was brought to tears as Waterston's Lear cradled poor Gloucester, a fellow bereft parent, masterfully portrayed by Michael McKean. The kindness, the gentleness of his nurturing is beautiful.
McKean is another shining golden thread in this tapestry. Affable, gullible, so horribly lost, his Gloucester hurt my heart to watch. But when McKean stands brave and proud, alone against the terrors of war, he took my breath away. With booming bomb explosions, rattling machine gun bursts, creeping smoke, blinding flashes of light surrounding him, McKean's Gloucester is a symbol of good people everywhere, standing up for what is right, no matter the cost. And Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Darron L. West’s sound make one hell of a war!
Bill Irwin makes a most poignant, charming, and sweet Fool. Resplendent and bawdy, loving Lear enough to be straight with him—in a most roundabout way—Irwin’s Fool seems trapped inside the antiquated jokes, struggling with all his might to communicate to Lear the truth, the ugly, necessary truth, through riddle, song, and pantomime. Irwin is amazing.
Enid Graham’s Goneril, with her horrible righteousness, shows great strength and logic in her cruel convictions. Her passion for Edmund, a prize to be won at any cost, is riveting.
John Douglas Thompson, who makes a very proper Kent, does a great turn in his Caius disguise, making the most of a long speech of insults.
The rest of the cast is without a flaw.
I really loved the honesty of the deaths, the pain, the screams, the refusal to paint a pretty picture. War is not pretty. Betrayal hurts like hell. Loss and Death are not easy.
So again, what to cut? What to trim? Nothing. This King Lear is worth the 3 1/2 hour running time. I would not change a thing.