The Playgoer: REVIEW: King Lear

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Friday, June 30, 2006

REVIEW: King Lear

King Lear
by Actors' Shakespeare Project
starring Alvin Epstein
At LaMama. (closes July 2)

There's a moment in Alvin Epstein's performance of King Lear when it is movingly apparent that this is the same actor who introduced American audiences to Beckett's Lucky when Waiting for Godot came here over 50 years ago. It is during that stretch of sublime insanity that takes hold of the play in Acts III and IV, with the king adrift in the wilderness, attended by his reduced court of misfits, losing his mind while gaining his soul. Lear's babble at this point is famously incomprehensible (today, at least) and must be one of the greatest challenges of the role. But Epstein rips through the passages gleefully, even giddily. Nonsense is this actor-mime's favorite language, we suspect. The fact that he is stripped down to a baggy loin cloth, exposing his small and worn 81-year-old frame (yes, the actor's, not just the character) only adds to both the pathos and absurdity. The image of this old man in a diaper, worn by age and toil, yet irrepressibly spritely, brings out the Absurdist in the Bard in a way that transcends written language and speaks to an eternal dramatic spirit.

Sure, Epstein is not a "central casting" Lear. Less the stern father figure than the feisty grandpa, his is not the chilling tyranny of Paul Scofield, nor even the regal disengagement of Christopher Plummer. The early scenes lose a little tension from the absence of the kind of "authority" referred to in the text, and the fact that most of his family towers over him. But when Lear loses all, Epstein finds the part, and communicates more vulnerability and honesty in the character's journey than his more commanding predecessors were capable of. I've never seen the death scene, for instance, so unforced and so believable.

The production surrounding Epstein--by the Actors' Shakespeare Project of Boston--provides a generally watchable staging of the complete text to support him, but with few memorable moments. The Beckett associations begin and end with Epstein; otherwise, it is more or less by the numbers. Benjamin Evett's Edmund and Colin Lane's Gloucester offer compelling readings of certain scenes, but for the most part the supporting cast reminds us all too regrettably that the play is about a lot more people than just King Lear. Thankfully, however, director Patrick Swanson and his design team (David R. Gammons, Mark O'Maley, Elizabeth Locke, and Bill Barclay) have worked some magic in the LaMama Annex space, transforming it into an earthy, woodchip-floored dimly lit box which sucks us in immediately with its primal elegance. The staging's chief asset is how it exploits the intimacy allowed by the space and its small cast.

A compelling star and nice production values make this a Lear ultimately worthy of recommendation. But the acting is definitely uneven, with some choices truly head scratching. Just what Ken Cheeseman's Fool is supposed to be, with his baseball cap, culottes, and Nikes, mumbling through his routines like a vagrant out of a trailer park...who knows. (I realize I may be making this sound like a more interesting interpretation than it is.) Maybe no one can make the Fool funny anymore, but director and actor here only succeed in making him incongruous with everything else going on. And still definitely not funny.

Although this is not as martial as Lear as some, Robert Walsh provides the requisite and impressive fight stagings and violence. It is an impressively mounted production for its small budget and modest origins. Its greatest design fixture, of course, remains the simple human presence of Epstein, with a lineage as royal as Lear's, theatrically. One might find oneself nodding in new ways at Edgar's concluding eulogy: "The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long."

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