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Monday, July 28, 2014

John Lithgow as King Lear in Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park

I just saw John Lithgow as King Lear in the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park.

Do not miss it! A production as moving and perfect as this does not come around very often.

The show runs through August 17, so get your tickets as soon as possible:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I would like to share my thoughts with you.

This is the first time that King Lear has been performed in Central Park since 1973. So, not only would you be seeing a great production, you are seeing a piece of theatre history in the making.

It just set the play in what appeared to be an ancient time, perhaps 8th century Britain, which is when a legendary King Leir is said to have reigned. The costumes were rather simple robes and such, without too much color or decoration. I admired the choice, because it didn't draw your attention away from the play.

I hate pointing out only some of the performances. The entire cast was really superb. But I do want to mention some of them:

Clarke Peters as Gloucester

I have never seen such a perfect Gloucester. Clarke Peters, probably best known for The Wire and Person of Interest, was just terrific.  When Gloucester is blinded, I have never been so horrified. Mr. Peters did something electric with the moment, and he made the moment more than just acting. When Lear recognizes him, it is so touching, it moved me to tears.

I don't want to spoil the surprise for you, but when he leaps off the cliffs of Dover, it is the simplest and most heartbreaking staging of the moment I have ever seen.

Chukwudi Iwuji was great as Edgar. Most actors are just fine when they play Edgar but never manage to make the transformation to Tom o'Bedlam very convincing, and hardly ever manage the tightrope walk between Edgar and Tom when he is with his father Gloucester. Mr. Iwuji is the first actor I've seen to make it all work, and make it look effortless.

Also, Messrs. Peters and Iwuji have a fantastic rapport on stage. They really make the relationship seem convincing.

Chukwudi Iwuji as Edgar/Tom

Jay O. Sanders, who has done so much work at the Public, was terrific. There are great moments for the Kent character, like when he gets to insult Oswald, and Mr. Sanders made the most of it. But what I really appreciated about his performance was the fact that even when he wasn't the focus of the action, he was constantly supporting the other actors, fully engaged with them, and connected to the action on stage. 

Too often I see actors who don't engage in this kind of character acting, and sometimes almost imperceptibly the play suffers. When an actor like Mr. Sanders puts all that effort into it, it makes it more engrossing.

The daughters, individually and as a whole, were great. I liked the fact that they actually looked like sisters, which made their individual traits all the more interesting.

Sometimes, I find there is no real rapport between the actress who plays Cordelia and the actor playing Lear. Not with Jessica Collins. There was an infeffable emotional connection between her and John Lithgow. He really seemed to care for her, before he banishes her of course, and when they are reunited. Ms. Collins really seemed to regard this man as her father.

She performed the role and recited the lines as well as any actress I can remember, but what set her apart was the real feeling she had for Mr. Lithgow as Lear.

Jessica Hecht as Regan was great. She is always excellent, and I always enjoy her acting. She added something to Regan I don't think I've ever seen before: a great passive-aggressive quality. It seemed to suggest a real princess, who only care about the big picture, but can't be bothered with the little stuff. It was very entertaining, and made the character rather fresh.

Annette Bening as Goneril

I was thrilled to see Annette Bening on stage. I have been a fan of her work, and I was especially excited to see her in Shakespeare again, after her performance in Richard III with Ian McKellan.

She brought something new and refreshing to the role of Goneril. She had this imperious quality that further emphasized that she is not just somebody's daughter -- she is King Lear's first-born daughter, a real princess.

That is an elusive thing for most actresses, but Annette Bening nailed it. She wasn't just one of three sisters, as fars as she was concerned, she was the only sister who mattered. 

What made this performance even more memorable, and very unique in my experience, is that she was very convincing as the daughter who loves her father in the beginning, and later she was very convincing as a daughter who means to destroy her father. It made Goneril truly frightening, in this production.

That leaves John Lithgow as King Lear.

I saw Mr. Lithgow on stage in M. Butterfly. It was so well written, incredibly gripping and beautifully acted that I went to see it twice!

I have seen him so often and in so many roles on TV and in films, and he is always reliably excellent. But to see him on stage is a whole different matter. The stage is probably where he most enjoys himself as an actor, because he clearly relished this opportunity, and made the most of the performance.

What I found the most extraordinary about his performance was his voice. His voice is the most magnificent instrument. It can express such a variety of emotional nuances. My written words here don't do it justice. You just have to see him perform live to get what I am saying.

When he divides his kingdom between his daughters, he clearly adores them. He doesn't love them, he cherishes them, and the warmth in his voice makes the words more than what's written. When he banishes Cordelia, when he curses Goneril with sterility, it is all the more effectively tragic. His voice, which can be so sweet, becomes malignant, vicious, violent. I could hear people gasping in shock when he cursed them.

Steven Boyer as the Fool

When he cries out to the storm, it is precisely the booming, almost God-like voice I want to hear from King Lear. After all, he is a King, and he should speak and shout like no common man. The sound effects in the theatre, with the thunder crashing, could not drown out Mr. Lithgow's awesome vocal strength.

I know this play very well. I have seen it several times before. As moving as the play can be, I never cry. I know what's coming, and I am not surprised by the tragedy. So, I don't cry.

Well, Mr. Lithgow got me to cry twice.

When he reunites with Cordelia, and when he dies holding her dead body, he got me. And what made it almost impossible for me not to cry was his voice, which had been so manic and so crazy for so long in the play, finally became still and soft and tender.

With Christopher Innvar as Albany

He also did something with Lear that I didn't think was possible. I have considered, and I seem to recall reading somewhere, that there is no catharsis by the end of King Lear. There is all this tragedy, and by the end so many characters have died, and there is no outlet for our grief.

But as I watched Mr. Lithgow die on stage, I felt a catharsis. Odd.

So, I thought over his performance and I think I figured out what he did to make Lear's death less tragic, and actually emotionally satisfying.

Edgar falls apart and becomes Tom o'Bedlam. Tom is meant to represent the lowest low anyone could imagine reaching. He is an almost naked homeless lunatic.

In previous productions I have seen, King Lear also falls apart and eventually meets Tom, but never seems to fall as low as Tom.

But in this production, Mr. Lithgow takes Lear to Tom's level, and arguably even lower, even more pitiful and pathetic.

So, when Lear meets Cordelia and is cleaned up, he is a kind old lunatic. He is a vegetable really. It is as if it were better that he were dead, than live his days like a ghost of the man, the king, he was before. If he were to live any longer, he might be remembered more for his insanity than his greatness as a king.

Therefore, when Mr. Lithgow dies on stage as Lear, I felt a catharsis. I felt that this is a satisfying end to the life of a great king. It was also so powerful, that it was hard to watch, like it was too intimate a moment to be seen publicly.

Also, the director Daniel Sullivan is brilliant at moving the play along with such energy, and with so much humor. The comedy here is critical, because watching Lear can be a chore if it is all doom and gloom. And, if the comedy is handled well, which it is here, it adds to the eventual grief at the end. Without these little hints of comedy, the tragedy is less powerful.

I can't recall ever reading any analysis of the play to suggest that Lear's death can lead to catharsis, or be a good thing. 

But leave it to an excellent actor like Mr. Lithgow, under the superb direction of Daniel Sullivan, and supported by a terrific ensemble, to find something new, break new ground, and take King Lear to emotional heights arguably never seen before.

Do yourself a favor, and go see this play. It is only playing for a limited time.


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