EmptyKevin Kline is one of those rare American stars who can move easily between film and theater. He can act both "Sophie's Choice" and "Richard III," "The Ice Storm" and "The Seagull," "A Prairie Home Companion" and, now, at New York's Public Theater, he can create a King Lear that is both exquisitely moving and unfinished.
There are moments, especially in the tragedy's second half, when Kline's portrayal of the foolish but wise Lear is heartbreaking. Dancing barefoot on sunlit sand, clad in rags and with a circlet of tangled reeds for a crown, Kline creates a Lear both endearingly humorous and painfully dislocated from reality.
At the play's end, cradling his dead daughter Cordelia (Kristen Bush) in his arms, his voice ravaged with grief, Kline exudes a sorrow so deep it emanates from him physically.
So why "unfinished"? Well, Lear is a mammoth role, for one thing. Even a skilled actor like Kline needs time -- perhaps even a second or third stab at the part -- to conquer this role, if indeed it can be "conquered."
But the production directed by James Lapine ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee") and set in the here and now also is at fault. At the beginning, when Lear divides his kingdom according to how much love each of his three daughters pledges, this "King Lear" asks Kline to behave like an irritated Enron executive, rather than like a royal who is beginning to lose his bearings. (The three female children who begin the play and appear at the end are a Lapine addition that distracts rather than contributes).
Then, too, the actors who surround Kline during the play's second half -- Michael Cerveris as honest Kent, Brian Avers as a tormented Edgar and the fine Philip Goodwin, looking a bit like Harpo Marx, playing Lear's sad fool -- are adept at performing Shakespeare. By contrast, the actors who surround Kline at the play's start, particularly Bush as Cordelia and Laura Odeh as the unpleasant Regan, need some coaching. An actor like Kline and a drama like "King Lear" deserve a top-flight cast in every part.
The production receives top-flight support from its designers, however. With a couple of rusted iron pillars and a mound of tumbled stone, Heidi Ettinger turns the Public's Anspacher Theatre into a scene that evokes the remnants of the World Trade Center, and the lighting and sound designers bring about a terrifyingly brutal storm. Stephen Sondheim and Michael Starobin have composed delicate, haunting music.
But finally it is the image of Kline's Lear that remains, sorrowful but wise, exhausted but strong, long after the lights are down.
The Public Theater
Credits: Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: James Lapine; Set designer: Heidi Ettinger; Costume designer: Jess Goldstein; Lighting designer: David Lander; Music: Stephen Sondheim, Michael Starobin; Sound designers: Dan Moses Schreier, Phillip Scott Peglow. Cast: Earl of Kent: Michael Cerveris; Earl of Gloucester: Larry Bryggman; Edmund: Logan Marshall-Green; Lear: Kevin Kline; Goneril: Angela Pierce; Cordelia: Kristen Bush; Regan: Laura Odeh; Duke of Albany: Michael Rudko; Duke of Cornwall: Daniel Pearce; Duke of Burgundy: Joaquin Torres; King of France: Piter Marek; Edgar: Brian Avers; Oswald: Timothy D. Stickney; Fool: Philip Goodwin.