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Pared down 'King Lear' leans hard on script but shows signs of slippage

Photo: Dwayne Green, License: N/A

Dwayne Green

Rusty Thurman, Allan S. Ross, and Kat Connor writhe to the occasion in King Lear.


Most young theater companies are rightfully leery of Lear: though an indisputable masterpiece, King Lear is also a fiendishly difficult text. Yet the Classic Theatre Company has never shied from tackling the canon's more knotty works, and there's a lot to admire in its fourth-season closer, with co-founder Allan S. Ross rising to the occasion as the titular ruler. Vaguely set in a pre-WWII England, Anthony Ciaravino's production doesn't, however, gel as a fully coherent interpretation: ultimately, this Lear abandons its postmodern trappings and becomes — for better or for worse — a straightforward and barebones staging. Text trumps subtext, here.

It begins so differently, with Lear announcing into an old-timey radio microphone that he's bequeathing his kingdom to his daughters and their beaux. At the same time, the off-stage cameras of the paparazzi flash and dazzle: this is a king clearly comfortable with the cult of celebrity, in a fresh take on the Lear legend. Is this to be, then, an investigation of the travails of our contemporary British nobility, the first mass media monarchy? Or a more general riff on the family dramas that roil beneath the glassy surface of international fame?

There are, of course, other competing interpretations of Lear: indeed, the play famously begins with a volley of nothings and concludes with a run of nevers. And even if we were to kick existential interpretations to the curb, Lear's descent into dementia is the stuff of a million dissertations. But Ciaravino's own concept — which glances at the media-saturated world of, say, The King's Speech — peters out after those first few scenes: sure, there are a few film noir revolvers, and some natty threads by Jodi Karjala, and a suspiciously prominent scotch glass. But the set, by Mary Evans, seems discordant; with just a marbled platform and some under-utilized columns, the bare stage throws all the weight of the evening onto the text, even as Ciaravino attempts a high, European-style concept. The design feels incomplete.

Now, it's not necessarily a bad thing for a production of Shakespeare to concentrate on text, and in general, the large company handles the language well. (The accents are various shades of homegrown American.) Ross, in particular, makes for an agile and compelling King: he plays Lear's opening irascibility both naturalistically and sensibly, as his youngest daughter Cordelia, unlike her two sisters, declines to kiss his royal ass. The subsequent power struggle for inheritance sets off a grand chain of events that culminates in one of Shakespeare's most impressive body counts.

The production works best when it concentrates on dysfunction, including the parallel dissolution of the Earl of Gloucester's family; Gloucester, played with affecting gravity by Dan Yount, turns against his own child, with devastating consequences. (Deoculation might be icky in concept, but it makes for some simply smashing theater.) Brad Adams imbues Gloucester's bastard son Edmund with Machiavellian slyness, an effective foil to his princely brother Edgar (Rusty Thurman). Lear's daughters — Belinda Harolds, Gypsy Pantoja, and Kat Conner — radiate properly motivated villainy or virtue, while Cordelia's supporter Kent (Matt Cassi) bobs in and out of the complicated plot.

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