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King Lear

Sam Waterston gives a disappointing performance in the title role of James Macdonald's misguided production of Shakespeare's tragedy. logo
Kristen Connolly and Sam Waterston in King Lear
(© Joan Marcus)
With the current movie Anonymous calling attention to the argument that William Shakespeare didn't write the plays attributed to him, James MacDonald's version of King Lear, at the Public Theatre, might instead be making the case that Shakespeare wrote the play, but that it isn't a very good one. Rarely has such a wide-of-the-mark revival been committed to the stage.

While Sam Waterston gives a moving account of the dying monarch mourning his already deceased daughter Cordelia (the tall, willowy, adequate Kristen Connelly), he's otherwise disappointing. Although the text frequently makes it clear he fears going mad, Wasterson has already edged several steps down the madness path from the get-go. Bugging his eyes and shouting this Lear is truly the "foolish fond old man." As a result, the actor's misguided portrayal turns the astonishing tragedy into a vaudevillian melodrama.

Lear's dividing his kingdom between eldest daughter Goneril (the impressive Enid Graham) and middle daughter Regan (Kelli O'Hara, nicely proving she needn't be considered strictly a musical leading lady) -- while cutting Cordelia out of the deal -- is the immediate cause of all the resulting real and figurative turmoil. As Waterston gives such an eccentric spin to his dialogue, he makes it seem as if the normally cruel and calculating sisters are actually behaving quite sensibly towards their unreasonable father.

For damaging characterizations, Waterston is matched by Bill Irwin's Fool. As he's compulsively done while recently playing the possessed father in Bye Bye Birdie and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, Irwin -- wearing a bright yellow clown hat and suit from which he pulls a miniature ukulele -- almost always stretches his words or truncates them so that what he's saying is consistently unintelligible. Apparently, he thinks the practice is comic, but he's wrong. It's only annoyingly distorting.

In the acting melee, Frank Wood as vengeful Cornwall also fractures the Bard's poetry. It doesn't stop there either, with Arian Moayed as the sympathetic Edgar doing something akin to Tony Curtis' "Yonda lies de castle of my fadduh" diction, while Seth Gilliam as ambitious illegitimate-son Edmund doesn't entirely make his non-stop sneering succeed.

Fortunately, a few cast members genuinely distinguish themselves. John Douglas Thompson, proving himself a formidable Shakespearian over the last two or three years, is resolute, warmly loyal Kent. Michael McKean effectively presents Gloucester as a well-meaning, if too easily gulled old man.

The ineptitude charge includes much of the creative cadre, sorry to say. Set designer Miriam Buether provides a parched environment with an upstage curtain of metal chains that travels forward and back and eventually becomes its own coup de theatre. (Pity the stage crew that has to deal with it between performances.)

During the bad weather sequences, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind relaxes his usual expertise for several unconvincing bright-light flickering. Sound designer Darron L. West's stormy-heath underscoring is surprisingly clichéd. At least, Gabriel Berry's costumes are palatable. But clothes do not make his misbegotten production.

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