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Kline Fine In Rich, Inventive 'King Lear'

Special to The Courant

March 8 2007

NEW YORK -- Looking at first rather like a Thomas Nast Santa Claus, with his flowing white beard and snowy hair, Kevin Kline surpasses even his most memorable Shakespearean creations in James Lapine's heartfelt and multifarious "King Lear."

The rich and inventive collaboration between America's greatest classical actor and the brilliant librettist-playwright-director ("Sunday in the Park With George") opened Wednesday night at the Public Theater in a brief engagement that is already sold out. It is unfortunate that so few will be able to see a Shakespearean production alive with new ideas and especially vivid moments.

Lapine makes telling use of three little girls, who play Lear's daughters as children. At the start, they are happy, loving sisters, working together to trace the outline of England in colored sands at center stage. As the court materializes in the famous opening, Lear uses the map to show how he will divide his realm between Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, the youngest and his favorite.

Yet, as we know, Cordelia will not win her share of the kingdom. After Goneril, the eldest, and Regan, the middle child, offer fulsome praise to their vain and egoistic father, Cordelia declines to tongue honeyed hyperbole, and thereby loses her dowry and her future in England. The Duke of Burgundy elects to withdraw his quest for her hand, but the King of France staunchly remains loyal and leads the princess into exile.

Kline first seems too youthful for Lear, but he ages into madness and delicate infirmity over the course of the production. But throughout, this Shakespearean tragedy comes across as a young peoples' "Lear," corresponding to Kline's relative vitality, and also to Michael Cerveris' Earl of Kent and Larry Bryggman's Earl of Gloucester. Cerveris has played Shakespeare chiefly at regional theater, but emerges as an impressive Elizabethan as the devoted, heroic lord, first in a dark wig, then (undercover) with his trademark shaven head. Bryggman, the senior member of the cast, comes to the credulous Gloucester with a host of Shakespearean characters in his portfolio. To his credit, this show never flags in later scenes when Kline vanishes for a time.

Another veteran of the Public is Philip Goodwin, now cast as Lear's Fool. In one of Lapine's wittiest touches, aided by Jess Goldstein's rube-like costume, this Fool resembles Harpo Marx, a correspondence reinforced by a sound-block box on one arm. Goodwin does not make his Fool a madcap though. He is cool and sophisticated as he holds a mirror up to his sire's follies. The composer and arranger Michael Starobin has teamed on the modernistic score, with its electronic moans and percussive effects.

The focus of "King Lear," reflected in the use of the child actors, emphasizes the conflicts and the love between parents and their children. The five players cast as Lear's daughters and Gloucester's sons all give distinctive performances, but the most salient acting comes from the striking Logan Marshall-Green, who has mixed off-Broadway work with television (Trent Atwood on "The O.C."), and who brings a joy in manipulation, betrayal and seduction to Edmund, the famed bastard son of his unsuspecting, gulled father, Gloucester, who pays for the treachery of his usurping child with blindness.

Brian Avers, costumed by Goldstein as a bookish, bespectacled nerd, makes a less strong impression in the difficult role of the good son, the wrongly suspected Edgar. Yet like the actors playing the sisters, he gives a well-defined characterization as he moves from innocence to near madness that reflects the incapacity of Kline's increasingly illusion-ridden old king.

In the early scenes, Kline moves from angry arrogance at Cordelia, to naive beliefs in the affections of Goneril and Regan, to ripping retaliation, to escape into the wildness of nature - as the civilized monarch becomes a lost wanderer. Lapine combines with the scene designer, Heidi Ettinger, the lighting man David Lander and the sound magician Dan Moses Schreier, to create a phantasmagorical surround for Kline's raging at the "cataracts and hurricanoes." Strips of scrim curtain Ettinger's constructivist Globe setting. Lander flashes rain patterns on the fabric, and explodes lighting bolts, while Schreier amps up the wind and thunder.

Thereafter, Kline's king slips into dementia, wandering in a flowing nightshirt and crowned by a ringlet of weeds. It is a passage both funny and pitiable as the kingdom begins to fracture.

Lapine emphasizes the sexual aspects of "Lear," from Kline's miming with his crown as a female sex organ, and Angela Pierce's burnished and calculating Goneril and Laura Odeh's more spirited and playful Regan working their wiles on the ever-willing and amused Edmund. Unlike some productions in which the daughters and their husbands seem almost interchangeable, Pierce's sister is more harsh and chilling than Odeh's spoiled Regan, who only turns merciless with the sightless, bleeding Gloucester. Similarly, Daniel Pearce's seemingly jovial Cornwell ultimately turns vicious in popping out an eyeball, a chore completed by his horrid bride after the lord is fatally stabbed. Michael Rudko's older Albany, who finally sees through Goneril, makes it to the end to try to heal the kingdom. Apart from the scheming Edmund, perhaps the most evil figure in the royal households is strapping and brutal Oswald of Timothy D. Stickney, the murderous henchman and sometime swain to the queens.

There are no big battles in this "Lear," though Rick Sordelet has staged an exciting knife battle between Edmund and Edgar. Still, as the production nears its ending, the bodies begin to pile up on the balconies and staircases of Ettinger's set. Lapine and Kline bring this masterwork to its heartbreaking climax as Lear carries the lifeless body of Cordelia onto the stage, before the play's final moment of revelation when three little girls materialize as beautiful, angelic ghosts.