Lear and his daughters: Kevin Kline, Laura Odeh, Angela Pierce, and Kristen Bush.
Kevin Kline is a recessive star, in the Fredric March mode, but not recessive to the point of becoming knotted up in his own acting, thank God. Like Robert Downey, Jr., he has an intelligence and a love of the game that often surpass the leaden productions in which he finds himself; he is an ironist, but one with heart. Even when he plays a big, showy character, such as his Tony Award-winning version of the swashbuckling Pirate King in the Public Theatre’s 1980 revival of “The Pirates of Penzance,” Kline maintains a certain skepticism; in that role, with his perpetually arched eyebrows a counterpoint to his thigh-high boots and bandanna, he repeatedly let us know that we were in on the joke. Which was? Why, the pure silliness on display—and his part in it.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1947, Kline was inspired to pursue acting, he has said, by his mother’s theatrical presence. This may explain why many female powerhouses, ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Meryl Streep, seem to shine even more brightly in Kline’s light. In recent years, Kline has played opposite Streep in Mike Nichols’s 2001 revival of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and in George C. Wolfe’s 2006 production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” both at the Public, and Streep has never had a better leading man. Kline knows just what to do with a diva: he hangs back as she shapes the show with her ferocious energy and will, then, once she feels safe enough to relax, he swoops in to share the stage. Kline matches Streep’s strengths with a jocular intensity of his own. Onstage with him, she lightens up. And we do, too.
But as the star of “King Lear” (now at the Public) Kline has only one real partner, and he’s a man: the sweet and arresting Philip Goodwin, who plays the Fool. Goodwin, with his Harpo Marx curls, is a kind of wife figure to Kline’s Lear, and their relationship eclipses all others here, with the possible exception of that between the Earl of Kent (Michael Cerveris) and the aged sovereign. We focus on Lear and the Fool less as a way of seeing the play from a new perspective—though we do that, too—than as a way of observing Kline at work, searching for his own style within Shakespeare’s torrent of words and ideas. Toward the end of Act I, dressed in dark colors as he sits beside the Fool on the second level of the three-tiered stage (the bare set is by Heidi Ettinger; the sometimes tacky costumes are by Jess Goldstein), Lear is nearly mute with anger. He has just dismissed his eldest daughter, Goneril (Angela Pierce), in a fit of pique. The Fool, baffled by the seemingly uncontrollable fury that the manipulations of Lear’s two elder daughters have engendered in him, shows his love and support as much through his humor and silence as through his constant pressure on the King—his King—to retain his reason amid the madness. Unlike Goneril and Regan (Laura Odeh), the Fool tries to cajole his master out of his morose rumblings with puns and questions that are meant to prod the old man into thinking, which is to say, into being who he is: a ruler. From this production’s edited text, we hear:
LEAR: I did her wrong.
FOOL: Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?
FOOL: Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house.
FOOL: Why, to put’s head in, not to give it away to his daughters and leave his horns without a case.
LEAR: I will forget my nature: so kind a father!
FOOL: The reason why the seven stars are no more than seven is a pretty reason.
LEAR: Because they are not eight.
FOOL: Yes indeed, thou wouldst make a good fool.
LEAR: To take’t again by force—monster ingratitude!
FOOL: If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.
LEAR: How’s that?
FOOL: Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
LEAR: O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad. Keep me in temper, I would not be mad.
Although Kline and Goodwin’s duets are brilliant, the production, directed by James Lapine, does not help us get a grip on the play as a whole. We care little about Goneril’s and Regan’s struggles, and we barely notice Cordelia (Kristen Bush) and her steady effort to counteract her sisters’ capitalist greed with a kind of humane socialism. Lapine is right to bring Lear’s relationship with the Fool to the forefront of the play: Kline’s strengths lie in the delicate, the quiet, and the intimate moments, not in Lear’s more bombastic scenes. But, by relegating the various subplots to the margins, Lapine turns most of the other characters into mere figures in a shadow play. (This may be just as well in the case of the Earl of Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund—played by Logan Marshall-Green—and his quest to destroy his brother and his father; Marshall-Green is a perfectly amiable young actor, but he lacks the severity of intention, the nefarious gravity of one who resides between resentment and anarchy.)
As every actor knows, Shakespeare wrote for the performer. In order to do justice to his plays, the actor must trust not only that he will be supported by the language but that he will find a measure of freedom in it. If the actors feel free, the director has done his work. Lapine, however, seems less like a director than like a manager. These actors work hard, but most of them move about the stage as if they were hemmed in by the weight of the text rather than liberated by it. The audience registers them almost entirely through Lear and the Fool’s reactions to them. Only Cerveris’s Kent seems to force himself into our consciousness, with his thrilling, bass-inflected voice. Known to most theatregoers as Sweeney Todd, in John Doyle’s 2005 production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical (Sondheim provided appropriate, if not particularly inspired, minimal music for this “Lear,” too), Cerveris has a devotion both to his own part as an exiled earl and to the other actors onstage. Using his deep voice like a shield, he tries to protect Kline’s Lear from the world; in his presence, the androgynous Kline becomes almost feminine.
Kline’s Lear is something to see, because he usurps the traditional reading of the role. While Alvin Epstein brought a scary, childlike stubbornness and anger to La MaMa’s rendition of the play last year, Kline does something altogether different and unexpected: he brings Lear down a notch. He makes his portrayal distinctly literary. He internalizes all the moments that other actors—Epstein included—have used for grandstanding. Even when he is caressing Cordelia’s dead body, Kline’s Lear doesn’t bellow out a “Howl, howl, howl, howl” of lament; he utters the word in a sad whisper of resignation. In that moment, he sounds almost like a flute muffled by a pillow. The pillow is his broken heart. Lear is a role that has challenged, defeated, and embraced great actors the world over. Here, Kline joins the pantheon.