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REVIEW: Sam Waterston storms as ‘King Lear’

kinglear110811_optShakespeare’s tragedy proves a damp experience at the Public Theater

BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW

Sometimes a Shakespearean production, in spite of good actors, fails to combust and that’s the soggy case of the “King Lear” that opened on Tuesday at the Public Theater.

You won’t get sufficient chills from this revival -- but there’s a chance you might catch a cold.

An unhealthy quality pervades director James Macdonald’s interpretation of the tragedy. Even designer Miriam Buether’s stark white box of a setting turns muddy as the drama’s storm scenes progress.

Sam Waterston projects an ailing Lear with a rusty voice, a jerky gait and an incipient case of dementia. Bill Irwin spookily depicts his muttering Fool in a sickly make-up. Michael McKean’s easily conversational Gloucester gets gorily blinded. Disguised as a madman, Arian Moayed’s Edgar appears so filthy it’s a wonder he doesn’t spread cholera.

These actors develop their roles well. Waterston’s raging Lear is blasted by the sizzling storm and his miseries into a pathetic gentleness. Irwin’s creepy Fool becomes ghostly. McKean’s stoic demeanor is touching. Moayed cleans up handsomely when Edgar asserts himself.

Other characters in this dark Elizabethan era study in elder abuse are capably cultivated.

Enid Graham’s Goneril removes her corsets and turns butch in a big way. Musical theater favorite Kelli O’Hara nicely presents a cool Regan who goes icy while Frank Wood, arms jutting akimbo as her consort, is one nasty Albany. John Douglas Thompson makes a solidly devoted Kent. king2lear110811_opt

Seth Gilliam obviously is enjoying a grand old time being terribly wicked as the duplicitous Edmund. Kristen Connolly’s washed-out Cordelia might borrow some juice from Gilliam’s overripe portrayal.

The set designer provides a grey curtain of metal mesh in the middle distance that gradually glides forward to represent how the very walls of disaster are closing in on Lear just prior to his journey into the storm, which is orchestrated with blasts of light and sound.

Editing the text cleanly, Macdonald stages the two-act action fluently but somehow his clearly-spoken production’s positive elements do not fuse into an electrifying experience. Hopefully this assortment of performances will finally catch fire at some point later during the show’s brief stint at the Public.

“King Lear” continues through Nov. 20 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.

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