A Leaner, Lesser ‘Lear'
By ERIC GRODE
March 8, 2007
The problems with James Lapine's mounting of "King Lear," starring Kevin Kline in the title role, are generally minor: a miscalculation in pacing, an ill-conceived staging notion, a gaffe in casting. But these small missteps quickly add up, drowning out the reverberations that a more commanding directorial presence might have provided. In a play known for eye gouging, self-mutilation, and other acts of mayhem, Mr. Lapine introduces a new form of carnage: death by a thousand artistic cuts.
Shakespeare's irredeemably bleak dissection of madness and filial ingratitude traditionally receives broad, ambitious stagings: a ravaged Lear howling at the world's injustices, betrayed and abandoned by his daughters, leading his depleted followers into an unforgiving night. So the idea of a smaller, more modest " Lear" is an intriguing one, particularly with the likes of Mr. Kline and Michael Cerveris performing in the close quarters of the Public Theater's thrust space.
Among the production's intermittent charms are the moments of clarity that stem from Mr. Kline's preternatural comfort with the text and his keen ear for its shifts in tone. These result in a unusually effective connection to the king's extended slide from reason; for once, Lear's repeated asides and bursts of self-doubt feel less like run-ups to the Act 3 fireworks and more like the entire point of "King Lear."
There's a sublime moment when Lear, smarting from yet another blow to his ego, interrupts a kibitzing session with his Fool (a game Philip Goodwin) and says, "O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!" His voice still has the unchecked confidence of royalty, and the phrase sounds like not a plea but a command. The dawning realization that the gods will be no more pliant to his wishes than his children are is chilling.
(Mr. Kline has had more success as a comic actor than most who have taken on the challenge of scaling Mount Lear; the thought of Paul Scofield or Edwin Booth starring in "A Fish Called Wanda" is a sobering one. Might this speak to Mr. Kline's success at what amounts to one long, tragic slow burn?)
The level of transparency that Messrs. Kline and Lapine displayed in the scenes leading up to Lear's derangement, however, eludes them in the momentous soliloquies that follow. The king's fruitless attempts to "wage against the enmity o' the air" ring false; every tic, lunge, and hesitation feels thought through, rehearsed. These scenes are not without their rewards — the incidental music by Michael Starobin and none other than Stephen Sondheim briefly takes center stage with a lovely vocal duet whose lurching melody and tight harmonic structure bring to mind Mr. Sondheim's "Passion," and Mr. Cerveris and Larry Bryggman are very strong as two of the king's companions, Kent and Gloucester. (Based on the evidence here, Mr. Bryggman could have a formidable Lear in his future if he so chooses.) But Mr. Lapine's emotional landscape is manicured where it should be chaotic.
There's also the issue of Mr. Kline's age. An irresistibly robust Falstaff in Lincoln Center's 2003 "Henry IV," he falls at least 20 years shy of Lear's given age of "fourscore and upward"; it's surely no coincidence that the above line has been excised. (Not much else has been: This " Lear" clocks in at well over three hours.) And Mr. Kline is still in trim shape, a fact that proves disruptive both in the opening scenes (why is Lear ceding control to his daughters already?) and in the half-naked mad scenes (is there an Equinox gym somewhere on that wind-blasted heath?). While Mr. Lapine's use of three young girls as silent doppelgängers of Lear's daughters makes sense conceptually, it's hard not to avoid the feeling that these preteens are nearly as plausible as Mr. Kline's children as the three adult actresses in the actual roles.
Other failings can be chalked up to inattentiveness by Mr. Lapine. Several cast members settle into that infuriating half-British half-American accent that afflicts so many Shakespeare productions and/or stoop to amateurish literalism. A particularly unfortunate example of the latter trend is Logan Marshall-Green's Edmund punctuating the line "My mind as generous and my shape as true" by pointing first to his head and then to his body. (The usually reliable Mr. Marshall-Green makes similar choices here with dismaying frequency.)
Mr. Lapine makes strong use of Heidi Ettinger's multilevel set and of the incidental music by Messrs. Sondheim and Starobin. He also does justice to the play's explosions of violence, including a rare acknowledgment that plucking a man's eyes out takes some effort. But the above shortcomings fall squarely at Mr. Lapine's feet, along with several others. Was it really necessary to cast Timothy D. Stickney, the production's only black actor, as a steward who is denounced as a "slave"? Or to tip the focus even further toward the Goneril-Regan-Edmund love triangle, which often threatens to derail the entire play?
This imbalance is rendered all the more dangerous by the relative hollowness of Mr. Kline's parallel scenes. No longer are the palace intrigues dwarfed by the king's ferocious perorations on the heath. No longer does Lear strive "in his little world of man to out-scorn / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain." Like the reference to the king's age, that line — and the ungovernable rage that fuels it — has also been cut.