King Lear, the Shakespeare Theatre

Robert Falls' production of King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre succeeds as a striking production, which will no doubt remain seared in the memory of all those who see it. I'm just not sure that it's a good production of King Lear; there is perhaps a pervading sense that, once again, a director has failed to entirely put his or her trust in the power of the play itself and has gone overboard in the attempt to communicate their own interpretation of the play.

That being said, there's a lot that Falls' production gets right. Although as a rule, I disapprove of placing Shakespeare's texts into specific contexts (as all the evidence points out that this was the last thing on his mind when he was writing them in the first place) and this production doesn't manage to overcome my prejudice, Falls and his design team succeed in creating a vivid atmosphere for Shakespeare's characters to inhabit. The concept of the production sees Lear as a crumbling Marshal Tito figure amidst a divided Yugoslavia, and even those whose only exposure to these issues come from a hasty skim of the 'Asides' magazine in the lobby will learn all they need from the all-too familiar world created onstage. From Walter Spangler's evocative war-torn sets to Ana Kuzmanic's costumes, showing a spectrum of opulence to poverty and every stage in between, it's all there in uncomfortable familiarity.

Speaking of familiarity, let's talk about Kate Arrington as Regan. One of the production's strongest traits is that it affords the audience a new lens with which to approach these well-known characters. Arrington gives us a Regan who is vain, spoiled, easily swayed by others, but deeply feeling and unsure of herself underneath it all. Suddenly last night, the character clicked for me in a new way and things started to make sense that had never quite gelled before. It's a tribute both to the actress and to Fall's ability to use his concept to work FOR the play. The opening two scenes of the play achieve this in spades- we are quickly introduced into a new and foreign world (I'm just assuming most of our readers are not members of a royal family ultimately bent on each others' wild and violent destruction, but hey- maybe I shouldn't assume) and as quickly as we're thrust in, we GET IT. It's decadence, it's fire and passion, danger and excitement, and everything is teetering on the brink of collapse. It WORKS.


Because then there are the moments where Falls lets the concept overtake the play- there's a moment in the second act that feels as though the audience is suddenly witnessing an anti-war performance art piece that goes on far too long and achieves neither the power nor the pathos for which its aiming. Attempts to increase the sex and violence in the play, and to combine the two over and over again, end up feeling as though Falls worries that we might not be horrified enough unless he ups the stakes.

Ultimately, I'm conflicted. For those familiar with the play, it can be interesting to see familiar characters and events shifted into a new context, but this production seems to relish its context more than it does Lear itself. It's striking, it's memorable, I'm glad I saw it, but it's efforts to push the envelope end up leaving me more disappointed in a production that tries just a little too hard to be be a memorable King Lear rather than a good King Lear. To those unfamiliar with Lear, I'd actually love to see what you think. It's a production I want people to see because I want to talk about all the things it gets right, but I always want to bemoan the moments where it fails. My ultimate recommendation? Go, and then let's talk. I'll be here.


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