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Stage Review: Cuts keep 'King Lear' from its crowning glory

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

In the lurid light of last week, the tragic wasteland of "King Lear" seems almost familiar. That's what tragedy does: It confronts us with a vivid image of our own mortality. United in grim recognition of our own failings and the indifference of the universe, we experience nonetheless a tentative celebration of common humanity.

By staging "Lear" in only its third year, Playhouse Rep takes art seriously; by doing so now, it serves a useful social function. Difficult masterpieces deserve their chance to step forth from the shadow of the page or the museum, and in these scary times, measuring ourselves against Shakespeare's dark nihilism can provide a sort of comfort.

"King Lear"

Where: Playhouse Repertory Company at the Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park College, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 7.

Tickets: $18-$22; student and senior discounts; 412-621-4445.


So Playhouse Rep gets high marks for tackling such a monster -- "a mountain whose summit [has] never been reached," according to the greatest English director of our time, Peter Brook, who made the attempt as often as anyone.

But on the evidence of what I saw at Saturday's second performance, David Wheeler's Playhouse production doesn't make it very far up the mountain, however handsomely designed and competently performed. It plays interestingly around in the foothills and dispatches occasional forays upward, but it stays largely earthbound, hampered by directorial choices, occasional clunkiness and insufficient preparation.

Director Wheeler tries to cut "Lear" down to scalable size in advance, reducing the text by as much as a third. You have to cut, of course; today's audiences demand it. By bringing it in at about 2 1/2 hours, Wheeler undoubtedly provides a service, but at a cost.

That cost and clunkiness are never more evident than in the massive opening scene, in which Shakespeare's turbulent story starts off with a bang. Ralph Waite's King Lear is not guiltless. Saturday, he seemed ill at ease, not a king whose poor judgment and rashness lead him into disaster, but an actor unsure of his lines. Occasionally, he was unintelligible. I couldn't begin to relax into the play until the reflective exchange between Goneril and Regan at the end of the scene.

The awkwardness of the opening must not obscure what is fine about Waite's performance later. There's little tyrant in him, little craggy grandeur. So when he storms against the storm and crumbles into madness, the fall hardly shakes the firmament. But then he comes into his own as a battered and bewildered Everyman. At his sweetly plaintive best in white robe and flowers, he is very moving.

He also has a persuasive way with the bitter humor of the scenes in the hovel, even though those scenes (perhaps wisely) are among those most sharply pruned. At the end, bending over the body of his beloved Cordelia (obligingly borne in by Edgar), Waite dramatizes the final pathos one expects.

You see the cost of Wheeler's revisions right away in the loss of the short private moment with which Shakespeare begins his play. We should briefly meet Kent and Gloucester, hear that the division of the kingdom is already known and also meet the villain Edmund and taste his grievance.

Wheeler replaces that with a brief tableau showing Lear's sons-in-law (Albany and Cornwall) already at war. Parting them, Lear then announces his surprise division of the kingdom, "that future strife may be prevented now." But giving power to men already at odds seems further evidence of Lear's folly; even odder, no one seems surprised. Anyway, this warfare is nowhere in the text -- it muddies Shakespeare's carefully constructed opening. The program note on this, which seeks also to explain Lear's management of Cordelia's (now one) suitor, obscures more than it clarifies.

More important, deprived of the introduction to Edmund, how can a novice audience know who he is when he delivers his "now, gods, stand up for bastards" soliloquy?

Anne Mundell's striking, primal set features matching slabs of golden rock. One provides a tilted platform that splits to reveal the hovel on the heath or swallow bodies killed in battle, its jagged gash representing Lear's shattered family and kingdom. The other forms a backdrop on which to project castles and which opens like a portcullis to frame key entrances. A platform of the same color runs alongside the audience to allow long entrances and to focus such moments as Edmund's defiant soliloquy and Lear's mad meditations.

The projections match the antique feel of Igor Roussanoff's costumes, which hover somewhat irresolutely between early medieval and something more primitive. Lear's throne seems almost early Roman. Maybe the setting is meant to be Romanized Britain, c. A.D. 400.

When it isn't standing like startled deer in tense but static attendance on Lear, the large supporting cast has good moments. Lear's daughters seem about the same age, which obscures their differences. Penelope Miller Lindblom's Regan (strangely pronounced Ray-gun) is the sharpest plotter, Lisa Richards' Goneril is the most flirtatious, and Robin Walsh's Cordelia is vigorously virtuous. (Her gown is like a May Day fruitcake, but later she appears on high as a shimmering Pre-Raphaelite princess.)

As Kent, Frederic Kimball (best known as the bumbling expert who assists Al Pacino in "Looking for Richard") initially bumbles about like an understudy. He never seems secure in his words, but his eccentric presence adds interest, especially in some great pictures arranged by Wheeler on the heath, which have the sculptural weight of a Blake engraving.

Stephen Mendillo's rather youthful Gloucester has a modernity that seems to place him in another play -- but only until his blinding. That scene is vigorously, thrillingly carried out, and Mendillo makes a poignant wanderer with Richard Keitel's disguised Edgar. Keitel grows into his role convincingly, just as Joel Ripka's Edmund, after tearing a passion to tatters to start, subsides into a cooler villainy.

Philip Winters is a sufficient villain as the sadistic Cornwall, while John Gresh emphasizes the dither in Albany. Kevin Lageman is an oily Oswald, but why has Wheeler promoted him into the aristocracy? Sheila McKenna's Fool is a hyper jester, very polished but never as plaintive as the Fool can be.

The slo-mo battles strike me as silly, and there are many halting moments. But they will speed up with playing. The final few days of rehearsal must have been hard, especially for those of the actors who are based in New York. I'm sure when I return this weekend, I'll see improvement. And to have "King Lear" at all is grace and benison.

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