Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Back on the Chain Gang

November 10, 2011

Bill Irwin, Sam Watterston, and Arian Moayed Photo: Joan Marcus/Public Theater
One last New York note: I and King Lear stopped by the Public Theater on Sunday. It was Lear’s third major appearance in New York this year following the Donmar Warehouse production with Derek Jacobi at BAM in May and the RSC offering in July as part of their residency at the Park Avenue Armory. In response, the Public Theater and director James Macdonald offered a well-cast, contemporary production that promised something unique in this Lear-heavy landscape. And given how dull the RSC showing at least had been, one would think it wouldn’t have been hard to muster something with a little more spark. But Macdonald and his excellent cast haven’t come much closer to cracking the notoriously prickly King Lear than most.

The production is set in a vacant, white-walled space with a dirt floor. There are few props and the set is mostly marked by a stage-width curtain made of chains. It's a Lear that could just a easily be a Godot with a few cast changes. That curtain slowly creeps downstage through the first two acts until the storm breaks and Lear is thrown out of his daughters’ houses into the wild. By that point, the space is so constricted by the curtain that the actors stand single file at the foot of the stage. With the lightning, the curtain recedes and soon the chains are dropped in a cascading sequence in the center of the stage imitating rain. But while this like the rest of the production is attractive, it doesn’t add much to the show in terms of meaning or insight. Sam Watterston plays Lear with an unexpected uniformity. Instead of portraying the kng as a man slowly sinking into madness, Watterston’s Lear comes out crazily shouting from the first entrance resolving the issue of the his unclear motivations for prematurely dividing his estate at the start of the play. This is a constraining maneuver as well, leaving the play with relatively few places to go.

There are some surprising choices in the casting. Michael McKean is a youngish Gloucester and Bill Irwin is Lear’s fool complete with his trademark ukulele. Irwin’s performance is particularly interesting with his own clowning dovetailing nicely into the fool’s sing-song approach to speech. Kelli O’Hara gives an intriguing and multifaceted performance as Reagan. She does well to build some sympathy for the character, before her inevitable downfall. Another nice surprise in the cast was Arian Moayed. After his success in Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo it was interesting to see him as the heroic Edgar. But despite these individually satisfying performances, I never felt that they added up to some larger whole. The typically painful scene where the blind Gloucester is reunited with his now mad king rang hollow and flat. And so it went for much of the evening with so many other unfulfilled promises and a King Lear failing to outshine its most recent competitors.


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