Christina Sajous and Andre De Shields
in King Lear
(© Jill Jones)
Christina Sajous and Andre De Shields
in King Lear
(© Jill Jones)
Just because it's a William Shakespeare tragedy doesn't mean it must be shouted at the top of the cast's lungs. Director Alfred Preisser neglected to pass along this admonition to the Classical Theatre of Harlem company that is currently giving King Lear an energetic shellacking. Such carryings-on may not have been heard in Manhattan since the Fulton Fish Market left for another borough. The approach has resulted in a production that, to paraphrase one of the Bard's many quotable lines, is more sinning than sinned against.

Andre De Shields, who has majesty built into his DNA, is the most prominent of the high-volume broadcasters. As the monarch who foolishly divides his land between two honey-tongued daughters and lives to regret it, De Shields begins his all-stops-out (and, eventually, all body parts flaunted) performance with a certain amount of amusing self-possession. But within minutes, he's ranting at a level that's infrequently modulated before Lear's final, usually heartbreaking moments.

Since screaming matches and railing at the heavens with arms raised reaps diminished returns, Lear's final appearance on a stage strewn with dead relatives and associates -- including Christina Sajous as a Xena-like Cordelia -- doesn't have the impact it should. Neither do some earlier speeches, such as the stunning one that begins "Poor, naked wretches" and goes on to show the not-so-mad Lear developing a humanity he's lacked. The loss is significant.

Decibelitis doesn't only afflict De Shields. Lear daughters Goneril (Robyne Landiss Walker) and Regan (Zainab Jah), as well as their respective spouses Albany (Danny Camiel) and Cornwall (Francis Mateo), participate in the can-you-top-this competition. It doesn't seem to have occurred to these actors or to Jerome Preston Bates, a loud-mouthed Kent, that the most vicious anger is often expressed in tense, controlled tones. One who does understand this is Ken Schatz as Shakespeare's wisest fool; although the thin, nimble Schatz tries to outdo De Shields in the early scenes, he eventually quiets down and lands his sagaciously funny lines.

Also eschewing shock-tactics emoting are Ty Jones as the Duke of Gloucester's scheming illegitimate son, Edmund, and John Douglas Thompson as his idealistic brother, Edgar. Jones puts much of his energy into athleticism; indeed, he may be the only Edmund who has ever done a back flip during the the "Now, gods, stand up for bastards" monologue. (Since Preisser has cut the play's opening speeches, in which Edmund's siring is explained, the character's now-first appearance is confusing.) Nor does Thompson sacrifice meaning to bleating. Maybe he sees himself as taking after Ted Lange, a generally low-key Gloucester.

The hard-working, barefoot ensemble doesn't benefit from Preisser's staging. Although set designer Troy Hourie has placed a castle-like arch upstage right, the playing area is otherwise dominated by ungainly risers that the players push around and then lock into place -- that is, if they remember to lock them. These risers cause no end of graceless maneuvering, and they're often distractingly moved while important dramatic poetry is declaimed.

Indeed, during the scene where Goneril and Regan try to talk their astonished father into forfeiting his personal entourage of knights, the risers on which the vile sisters are poised are shifted so dizzyingly that it's all but impossible to focus on what they're saying or on Lear's reply. That reply, as Bard lovers know, is the "Oh, reason not the need" outburst. One of Shakespeare's greatest arguments for life's pleasures, it here has lost some of its best lines to the cutting room floor. Perhaps this shearing is due to Preisser's realization that no one can concentrate on what Lear is saying anyway.

While Preisser has gone through Shakespeare's text wielding his scissors (not necessarily a punishable crime), he has also added a few interesting touches, such as creating an overall tribal atmosphere for the production. (Kimberly Glennon's costumes emphasize the concept.) Also, as is happening in many other contemporary King Lear stagings, the women aren't just bystanders. Goneril and Regan have never been shrinking violets, but under Preisser's direction, Jah as Regan indulges in at least one violent gesture that isn't mentioned in Shakespeare's stage directions.

The most eye-popping directorial touch answers a question that Lear students have long asked: Why does the fool disappear after act three of the five-act work? Preisser's smart explanation won't be detailed, but here's a tip: Watch closely the scene in which Lear tries his daughters in absentia. Unfortunately, where other aspects of this production are concerned, it isn't only the old king and the old duke who've behaved foolishly.