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King Lear

Robert Falls' contemporary take on Shakespeare's classic is perverse, violent, and richly realized. logo
Stacy Keach and Edward Gero in King Lear
(© Liz Lauren)
Artistic director Robert Falls opens his 20th anniversary season at the Goodman Theatre with an oversexed King Lear -- with the occasionally brilliant Stacy Keach in the title role -- that is as eccentric as it is spectacular. As one expects from the Tony Award-winning director, his vision is richly realized and challenging. It's also perverse, disagreeable, dark, and violent, although no more so than the times in which we live.

Falls' thoroughly contemporary take on Shakespeare's great tragedy uses costumes (by Ana Kuzmanic), Middle Eastern and Slavic music, and extensive cigarette smoking to suggest a Balkan locale. (Serbian is even spoken several times.) There, a hard-drinking, sexually amoral, and casually violent social elite clothe themselves in leather jackets, gaudy dress outfits, and ostentatious jewelry. Walt Spangler's Act I scenic design encloses the stage in abstract golden towers that suggest wealth, power, security, and strength. In Act II, the country is war-torn and desolate, a hazard zone of destroyed cars and rubble. The towers, charred and crumbled to their girder guts, intentionally recall the aftermath of September 11.

Moreover, Falls doesn't stop there in drawing his parallels; before the final confrontation between half-brothers Edgar and Edmund and the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, he has black-clad peasantry drag over 30 white-shrouded corpses on stage, which are then thrown into a common grave where the body of blinded Gloucester also is tossed.

Falls' interpretation of the play is not the only thing that will engender controversy. First, he has eliminated close to 45 minutes of text, and those familiar with the play will notice cuts in virtually every scene, especially the storm scene and the mock trial in the hut. Next, Falls radically alters some characters' intentions. After the Duke of Cornwall blinds Gloucester, Falls has Edmund garrote him to death and embrace Cornwall's wife, Regan (who witnesses it all in lingerie). Similarly, in the final moments, Falls has Goneril strangle Regan, and then shoot herself.

These details emphasize the fact that Falls' version of Lear is entirely about power politics and sexual politics. The play is no longer about the getting of wisdom and recognizing too late the true importance of loyalty and love; it's about a corrupt, disorderly, and morally bankrupt society. There are brutal acts of anal sex. Goneril and Regan are sluts in gaudy costumes who use sex to win their ways. Goneril takes her servant, the minor character of Oswald, as a lover. When Lear staggers on stage with strangled Cordelia in his arms, she is naked, bruised, and obviously raped. Sex is both power and punishment.

But Lear, who is the catalyst of the action yet also a pawn in it, has no part in the sexual machinations. The more this Lear is about sex, the less it is about Lear himself. While Keach is a very good Lear -- one with some great moments -- he is not a great Lear. Part of the blame lies in Falls' interpretation of the play, which never allows Lear to achieve the play's full dimensionality. Second, Keach reaches the limits of his vocal and physical resources far too soon. He's quite charismatic in the opening scene in which Lear divides his kingdom and rejects Cordelia and Kent, but the actor quickly hits a plateau. As Lear careens from daughter to daughter, his fury and stress growing, Keach has no additional resources to summon. As a result, the audience can respond only intellectually to the lines rather than to emotions from the actor.

After intermission, Keach returns as the mad Lear, a shabby garbage picker among the ruins, and finally achieves brilliance. Quieter, smaller and wry, he treats "Let copulation thrive" as comedy. This is Lear chastened: lusty but not lustful, wistful yet puckish, fallen but accepting; a man who endearingly soothes the blind and sobbing Gloucester in his arms. It's the emotional highpoint of the play.

An impeccable ensemble supports Keach with even-handed assurance and strength. First among equals are Edward Gero as Gloucester, Joaquin Torres as Edgar, basso-voiced Kim Martin-Cotten as Goneril, and Howard Witt as the black-clad and white-faced Fool. Without question this is a truly memorable King Lear, although emotionally it is one of diminished expectations.

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