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A Distant Kevin Kline Stars As `Lear'

Wednesday, March 7, 2007
(03-07) 14:40 PST NEW YORK, (AP) --
Kevin Kline usually exudes such a vital, robust stage persona that it's a puzzlement to watch his pale transformation into the mad monarch at the center of director James Lapine's slow, strangely unmoving version of "King Lear."

Not that this modern-dress production, which the Public Theater opened Wednesday, is emotion-free. But the grief is subdued at least as far as Shakespeare's most touching tragic hero is concerned.
At his first appearance, Kline, sporting white locks and a stylish full beard, certainly looks resplendently royal, dressed in a purple jacket, gold vest and gray slacks. The 59-year-old actor is a commanding physical presence with the expert vocal technique to handle Shakespeare's verse.

Yet right from the start, Kline's performance seems distant, almost as if he stepped outside the character and is looking in — still trying to find the man who renounces his youngest, truthful daughter and who unwisely divides his kingdom between her older, conniving siblings.

"King Lear" is one of the great plays about family, particularly the bond between parents and children, and Lapine certainly plays up that connection throughout the long evening.

His production, while often plodding, offers a parade of striking images, most of which have something to do with earth. Even before the play begins, we see three little girls on stage, each fascinated by a sand map of Britain. You can be sure that before very long, this outline of the country will be kicked into smithereens, and that set designer Heidi Ettinger's backdrop of what looks like mounds of dirt will come tumbling down.

Lear's three daughters are a glamorous bunch (their gowns are by costume designer Jess Goldstein), but they seem more defined by the color of their outfits — Cordelia, the good daughter, is in blue — than by the personalities of the actresses portraying them. For the record, they are played by Angela Pierce, Laura Odeh and Kristen Bush.

More emotion is found in the relationship between the Earl of Gloucester (the always reliable Larry Bryggman) and his two sons: the good Edgar, played by Brian Avers, and the dastardly Edmund, a cunningly seductive Logan Marshall-Green. The eventual reconciliation between the blind Gloucester and his loyal offspring shouldn't — but does — pack more of an emotional punch that Lear's eventual realization of how he has wronged Cordelia, his youngest child.

The rest of the supporting cast is uneven but there are credible portraits by Michael Cerveris, whose Kent does a nifty physical transformation to remain in the king's good graces, and Philip Goodwin as the Fool, done up as a foppish vaudevillian.

Kline's monarch is certainly the buffest Lear in memory, particularly in his stripped-to-his-skivvies mad scene. Yet the howling seems calculated, not leading to the bleakness that should overwhelm the man when he realizes what he has done to Cordelia. Despair has been muted.

The production's incidental music is the work of both Michael Starobin and Stephen Sondheim, and Sondheim buffs will most likely recognize what melodies are his — particularly the tune that closes the end of first act.

Kline was a hearty, humorous Falstaff in Lincoln Center Theater's spirited 2003 revival of "Henry IV." The actor's expansiveness lifted the entire production. By comparison, this "King Lear" seems constricted, shrinking the impact of one of Shakespeare's most majestic plays.