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The Lear Project

Note the headline -- this is a report, not a review. The reason: The Lear Project I saw last Wednesday evening is a reexamination and restructuring of Shakespeare's tragedy about a king who mistakes flattery for love and finds himself an old man without an anchor. It has been in the making for two years. Though audiences paid admission as to a "regular" play for each of the June 23-28 performances at the Stables Theatre and critics were invited, this remains a work in progress. By the time Denis Krausnick, the director, and the actors who have accompanied him on this journey are satisfied that The Lear Project is ready for a longer and official run, what audiences will see is going to be quite a different Lear than the one I experienced. I will therefore limit my remarks to the creative concept that drives this revisionist Lear.

Krausnick has by no means reinvented the idea of reinventing Shakespeare. The legendary Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet. In the early sixties Jan Knott, a Polish scholar, wrote Shakespeare our Contemporary and directors have ever since used his book as a sort of manifesto for taking whatever approach will relate the Bard's work to our own lives.

Shakespeare productions with actors in modern dress, (leather being the fabric of choice), minimalist sets, cross-cultural and cross-gender casting, have become almost more common than a true-blue Shakespeare play as it was written. While my CurtainUp colleagues and I have not embraced all of the more recent deconstructionist interpretations, (i.e., Matthew Warchus' streamlined Hamlet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), we found much to admire in the Off-Broadway four-character, all male version of Romeo and Juliet (Linked at the end).

In the case of King Lear, I have heard about but not seen some of the previous departures from the classical. Shakespeare & Company's female Lear has been preceeded by others, including one regional company incredible Southern Belle Lear). Modern or timeless costuming (the clothes worn by The Lear Project's women could come from a Lenox boutique) is also less than revolutionary.

The real first is to have a woman e playing the Fool is. With Tina Packer to don the Fool's costumes and speak his lines, it's safe to say that the part is in good hands and may well become a role model for future Lears. The way Lear needs the Fool to balance her dark side, while the Fool needs Lear's power is well delineated even at this stage of the project. The relationship between the queen and her daughters, on the other hand, still seems a case of trying to have it all ways -- a play that could have its counterpart in any family, and a play about a powerful monarch who relinquishes her power in a way that makes her daughters feel abused, and a meditation on aging. In its present format -- more a staged reading than a finished play -- the many layers in the relationships are still not as clear as what goes on between Packer's Fool and Dukaksis' Lear.

While Ms. Dukakis is a fine actress and the audience was clearly thrilled to have her literally close enough to touch in the small theater, the question and answer period following the presentation, indicated that a number of audience members did not grasp the sense of abuse by the mother that had Tod Randolph as Goneril and Virginia Ness Ray as Regan in tears of despair during several scenes. When Lear, initially a dour and forbidding presence, yields her power abruptly and unwisely any previous abuse of that power vis-à vis the older daughters is easy to miss. Jane Smiley's striking novel (A Thousand Acres which closely follows Shakespeare's dramatic arc left no doubt about the abuse of power's effect on an ordinary family. At this stage of this interesting but still incomplete voyage, the threads of power abused, power lost and power regained through self-knowledge are still on the fuzzy side though there are scenes which hint of a more satisfying whole to come -- for example,. the storm scene in which the once mighty monarch is lost in every sense of the word and yet manages to reconnect with the daughter she misjudged. No doubt, Krausnick and his colleagues, being the adventurous thespians they are, will continue to be guided by this quote from a 1996 op-ed piece by novelist Smiley: " Shakespeare can set the agenda for the modern era--himself half medieval, half modern, all Renaissance, he brought up every issue that the world had had to deal with from family relationships to political power to colonialism, not to mention good and evil. As the modern era ends, we can't go ahead into whatever is coming next without consulting the Bard and shaking him until he gives up some answers. He is the wise one, or at least the wisest one we've got."

Based on King Lear by William Shakespeare
Directed by Dennis Krausnick
Co-Produced by Shakespeare & Co. With the Orpheum Theatre/Foxborough
Starring Olympia Dukakis as Lear with Tod Randolph (Goneril, Virginia Ness Ray (Regan), Christina Zorich (Cordelia), Tina Packer (The Fool); Johnny Lee Davenport and Michael Hammond playing all the male roles
Sets and Costumes: John Pennoyer
Lights: Michael Giannitti
Stables Theatre, The Mount
2 Plunket St., Lenox, MA (413/637-4820)
A work-in-progress performed 6/23/98-6/28/98 Report by Elyse Sommer based on 6/24 performance

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