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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear

What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters?—Lear
Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.—King Lear
King Lear Public
Paris Rose Yates, Talicia Martins, Nicole Bocchi setting the scene for the King's ill-advised distribution of his kingdom. (Photo: (Photo: Michal Daniel) )

Kevin Kline as King Lear
Kevin Kline as King Lear (Photo: Michal Daniel)
If, like Hamlet, you tend towards melancholy, you're likely to reach a certain age feeling trapped in the clutch of "time with its stealing steps." If you're Kevin Kline, you see time's passing , not as a trial but an opportunity to play one of Shakespeare's most coveted roles. And so the once lusty young Pirate King, and more recently a rotund Falstaff in Henry IV Parts One & Two at Lincoln Center, has donned the white hair and crown of thorns of the monarch who foolishly gave away his kingdom to two bitchy daughters. He's young enough to have the stamina that the role of King Lear calls for, but has over time developed the range required for the aged monarch to progress (and regress) from understated arrogant and demanding royal authority to pitifully deranged outcast and finally a very human and utterly distraught with grief father.

Like many Shakespeare plays I've seen at the Public, this one isn't perfect or likely to please those who don't want the tragedy lightened and brightened with entertaining touches or spoiled by less than perfect performances. Kline's supporting cast features some outstanding players and some who disappoint, but it's bracingly full-bodied — almost big enough for a curtain call to come close to equalling Tom Stoppard's epic Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center.

As for the new twist that's become almost de rigeur when it comes to mounting any Shakespeare play, director James Lapine has come up with the concept of including a young Goneril , Regan and Cordelia (Paris Rose Yates, Nicole Bocchi, Talicia Martins,). These charming young girls are seen sitting around a square at the center of the main playing area of Heidi Ettinger's two level scenic design even before the play begins. They carefully fill in the outlines of a map from bottles of colored sand. It's a pretty picture of sisters at play, even though it's obvious that their sandy map, like their country and family, will be destroyed. That opening image serves as a novel and powerful scene setter and prompts questions about how loving and lovable children can turn into monsters as the grown Goneril and Regan do.

Kristen Bush, Angela Pierce and Laura Odeh as the grown-up sisters (saintly Cordelia, nasty Goneril and Regan respectively—their opening scene color-coordinated by Jess Goldstein with their younger selves) seem less like Shakespeare's creations than the Grimm Brothers' Cinderella and her stepsisters. The male actors fare much better. Logan Marshall-Green as Duke of Gloucester's duplicitious younger son Edmond is just the sort of sexy villain to appeal to the avaricious Goneril and Regan's libido. As Gloucester, whose relationship with his sons parallels Lear's failure to recognize the true jewel among his daughters, Larry Bryggman once again proves himself as an actor of great range. You bleed for him as he bleeds once the sadistic Regan and her equally nasty husband (Daniel Pearce) gouge out both his eyes. As Gonerl's husband, Albany, Michael Rudko quite ably conveys the conflict of a decent man caught in a web of evil. Philip Goodwin is a fine Fool, happily without going overboard on the shtick as I've seen some actors do. Michael Cerveris brings great presence to the noble Kent. But don't expect this actor, whose best known recent appearances have been in revivals of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, to burst into song during some of the incidental music provided by Sondheim (a rather odd late in life gig for the reigning king of contemporary musical theater).

Telling Shakespeare's Elizabethan stories within a current framework is of course hardly a new wrinkle. However, this production's modern costumes, minimal props and the almost industrial look of the stairways the actors ascend and descend give the play and players a sleek, modern look. Moreover, taking Lear's tragedy out of its period setting sharpens the thematic centrality of the word "nothing." When Lear asks his daughters to define their filial devotion to help him apportion his kingdom, Cordelia's refusal to play the sycophant with her simple but firm "nothing" sets the tragedy in motion. Seeing Lear and his daughters dressed to fit right into the material world we live in, Lear's vexed "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again" resonates more meaningfully thab ever. Lear lived in a material world and it was because he really believed nothing could come of nothing that he demanded something concrete to help him make a decision about his legacy. Unfortunately he misreads Cordelia's "nothing" and buys into Goneril's and Regan's empty promises, like an investor who fails read between the lines of the "red herring" offered up by a hot young company going public. Seen in this context, the link between Lear's and our world's materialism that "nothing" leitmotiv also applies to the Earl of Gloucester's relationship with his sons which parallels Lear's failure to recognize the true jewel among his daughters. The illegitimate Edmond starts life with nothing in the way of title and property, yet crafty villain that he is, he manages to turn Lear's "nothing coming from nothing" declaration on its head, almost ending up with not just his father's name but the whole kingdom. (Happy endings in Shakespeare's tragedies mean that the bad guys do die, but so do the good guys—unless an adapter decides otherwise, as did Nathan Tate in 1681 via an ending which linked Cordelia and the good son Edgar romantically and restored Lear to this throne).

Measured against the most recent major production of King Lear that starred Christopher Plummer, I think Kline's less aged Lear, with his graduallly escalating emotions, more than holds its own and this production is generally more accessible and interesting. With people living longer and as many forced as well as voluntary early retirements, Kline's initially too young for retirement Lear makes for a poignant connection between our world and the questions the play raises about maintaining one's sense of self worth and place in the face of years of diminished authority.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by James Lapine
Cast: Kevin Kline (King Lear), Brian Avers (Edgar), Nicole Bocchi (Young Regan), Larry Bryggman (Gloucester), Kristen Bush (Cordelia), Michael Cerveris (Kent), Philip Goodwin (Fool), Piter Marek (King of France), Talicia Martins (Young Cordelia), Laura Odeh (Regan), Daniel Pearce (Cornwall), Michael Rudko (Albany), Logan Marshall-Green (Edmund), Ryan McCarthy (Ensemble), Angela Pierce (Goneril), Tim Stickney (Oswald), Joaquin Torres (Duke of Burgundy), and Paris Rose Yates (Young Goneril).
Sets: Heidi Ettinger
Costumes: Jess Goldstein
Lights: David Lande
Sound: Dan Moses Schreier and Philip Peglow
Music: Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin
Running Time: 3 hours plus an intermission
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555,
From 2/09/07 to 3/18/07—extended before opening to 3/25/07; opening 3/07/07
Tuesday at 7:00pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sunday at 3:00pm. Wednesday matines February 28th, March 7th and 14th. Post-show discussions February 27th and March 13th.
Tickets: $60 with limited number of $20 Rush Tix available at the box office
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 3rd performance
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