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NEW YORK – In the minimal-compensation world of non-profit classical theater, Sam Waterston, perhaps more than any other successful contemporary actor, has proven his dedication by punctuating his film and television work with regular forays into Shakespeare. So in the post-Law & Order phase of his career, he has more than earned the right to wrestle with the big daddy of the Bard’s roles, King Lear, even if he’s an imperfect fit.
As an actor, Waterston comes across as a deep thinker – clear-eyed, lucid and grounded; a pragmatist with a rich humanity that suggests acute intelligence and sensitivity. He plays against type as a foggy-headed Lear in James Macdonald’s uneven production for the Public Theater. While he parses the language with probing clarity, the corrosive stranglehold of power on Waterston’s enfeebled monarch could be tighter. But it’s a slow-burning interpretation that eventually reaches peaks of despair.
The towering Lears tend to be those of actors in touch with their malevolent streaks and steely command as well as their addled vulnerability. In a play not exactly under-represented on New York stages in recent years, those ideal interpreters have included Christopher Plummer and Ian McKellen.
Waterston has more presence in the role than Kevin Kline, who gave a thoughtful but not exactly incisive interpretation in another Public staging in 2007. But Waterston plays Lear as a man already diminished at the outset, a frail shadow of himself.
From his first appearance, looking befuddled as his courtiers kneel facing the opposite direction, expecting him to enter from the other side, Waterston undersells the authority. His king seems prematurely pushed into dementia by the conniving vultures circling his domain, notably eldest daughters Goneril (Enid Graham) and Regan (Kelli O’Hara). Only when he bitterly curses them do we see glimmers in that rage of the formidable figure he once was.
By denying us the full arc of a great man unraveling — as much due to his own stupid vanity as to the forces conspiring against him – Waterston dilutes the tragedy. Kristen Connolly’s unprepossessing Cordelia contributes to the weakness of the crucial opening scene, in which Lear moves toward retirement by dividing his kingdom according to the testaments of love received from his three daughters.
Unburdening as he crawls toward death, to paraphrase Shakespeare, Waterston’s Lear seems too far gone to feel for any of his children. That means the schemers stand around tapping their feet while boring, self-righteous Cordelia and the faithful Earls of Gloucester (Michael McKean) and Kent (John Douglas Thompson) listen fretfully to the ravings of a tantrum-prone, mad old man.
But Waterston’s hold on the role, and the pathos of his characterization, grow incrementally as Lear is more cruelly reduced by circumstance. The more undone he becomes, the more affecting his agitation. It’s not in the violent storm that erases his last shreds of sanity – forcefully conveyed in visceral lighting and sound effects – but in Lear’s rudderless subsequent odyssey toward devastating loss that Waterston is heart-wrenching.
Rays of poignancy come also from McKean’s ill-used Gloucester, particularly when he encounters but fails to recognize his similarly betrayed son Edgar (Arian Moayed).
Overall, however, there are too many clashing acting styles. Moayed, who gave the standout performance in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo on Broadway, here strays too far into experimental territory when Edgar goes incognito as feral Poor Tom. As Gloucester’s treacherous illegitimate son Edmund, Seth Gilliam stops just short of twirling an imaginary mustache. And as Lear’s watchful jester, Bill Irwin’s Fool is an insufferable bundle of tics, a constipated clown in a play of his own.
Macdonald is a modern director, having done his best work with the radically pared-down language of playwrights like Sarah Kane and Caryl Churchill. His taste for austerity yields a striking image with a curtain of metal chains during the storm. But elsewhere, designer Miriam Buether’s stark setting has a deadening effect, and Gabriel Berry’s mixed-period costuming makes no clear statement.
Some of the more conventional performances hit their marks, if not with great distinction. Graham’s Goneril is an icy bitch, not to be messed with. As her husband, Richard Topol finds the staunch moral center in a man surrounded by perfidy. And it’s refreshing to see Broadway musical-theater star O’Hara (South Pacific) explore an unfamiliar nasty side.
But the performance that stands out in this production is Thompson’s. How this charismatic actor has stayed off the film and television casting radar is puzzling, particularly after his Off Broadway triumphs in Othello, Macbeth and The Emperor Jones.
His Kent is a principled man of stature, especially when he goes undercover after being banished. Disguised as the humble Caius, Thompson’s resourcefulness makes him the most riveting person onstage. Kent is usually a noble also-ran, rarely among the more memorable personages in this tragedy. But what the actor does with a scene as incidental as Caius dressing down Goneril’s snide servant (Michael Crane) is thrilling.
With unwavering assurance, Thompson maintains his footing in classical mode while marking out a characterization that is bracingly contemporary, making him the perfect collaborator for Macdonald. Many in the audience will be mentally fast-forwarding to when we get to see this protean actor put his own stamp on Lear.
Venue: Public Theater, New York (runs through Nov. 20)
Cast: Che Ayende, Craig Bockhorn, Kristen Connolly, Michael Crane, Herb Foster, Seth Gilliam, Enid Graham, Bill Irwin, Michael Izquierdo, Michael McKean, Arian Moayed, Kelli O’Hara, John Douglas Thompson, Richard Topol, Sam Waterston, Frank Wood
Director: James Macdonald
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Set designer: Miriam Buether
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Darron L. West
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by the Public Theater
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