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TV Review: Shakespeare is mostly lost amid the glory of the Old West

Sunday, June 02, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

You can leave Shakespeare out of it: "King of Texas" is a lovingly filmed Western about all the usual stuff -- cattle, family, greed, lust and a land as big as all outdoors.

At the center is an imposingly white-maned Patrick Stewart as a craggy monarch battling his children, the land, weather, Mexicans and his own loveless soul in an attempt to leave his legacy intact. The result is a colorful if undemanding TV movie, which, in spite of some fine performances, is fonder of its craggy badlands and period authenticity than of any insight into human nature.

"King of Texas"

When: TNT, 8 tonight; repeats at 10 p.m. and midnight, then June 6-16.

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Marcia Gay Harden

Related article

Patrick Stewart transports 'King Lear' to Texas


The elderly tyrant Stewart plays is John Lear, who has three daughters, among whom he decides to divide his mammoth ranch according to which one says she loves him most. When the youngest balks, he disinherits her. But the two favored daughters start to cause trouble, plotting to break the peace. Lear protests and is cast aside. After wandering through a violent storm on the open range, he is rescued by the disinherited daughter just as open war breaks out.

There's also a neighboring family with a parallel story of a father and two sons. And Lear has a truth-telling slave who follows him in his wanderings ...

By now you've probably realized that this is indeed a version of Shakespeare's famous family/political tragedy, "King Lear," with the language stripped away and the story and characters now in 1842 Texas.

Transposing Shakespeare to another time and place is common, and 1842 Texas makes a good parallel to the misty yesteryear of "King Lear." But "King of Texas" is less adaptation than complete makeover, like the recent TV transposition of "The Tempest" to Civil War Louisiana, starring Peter Fonda -- or, on the big screen, like Kurosawa's "Ran," which moves "King Lear" back to feudal Japan, or "A Thousand Acres," which moves it to Iowa.

In one way, "King of Texas" is less ambitious than "A Thousand Acres," which sought to explain the psychological mystery of Lear's irascible behavior and his daughters' revolt. But "King of Texas" is significantly more grand: John Lear rules a kingdom of 200,000 acres, which allows for more epic sweep than a paltry 1,000-acre Iowa farm.

Still, nothing about "King of Texas" requires knowing "King Lear," and it could get in your way if you obsess about how characters are adapted, combined or cut, plot lines pursued or discarded and Shakespeare's language only briefly referred to with a snippet or echo. But even while distracted by all this, I could tell there was a rugged weight to "King of Texas" that should appeal to those who don't know Shakespeare at all.

From a Shakespearean point of view, though, "King of Texas" gives up too much. It starts out ambitiously, making logical the initial catastrophe that in Shakespeare is simply a given. This makes all three daughters (Marcia Gay Harden, Lauren Holly and Julie Cox) more sympathetic. The youngest even gets to lecture Lear, a privilege denied her by Shakespeare.

But soon after devoting much more time to the exposition than Shakespeare does, "King of Texas" begins racing from plot moment B to H, P to W, cutting a great deal and hardly pausing to make clear the complexity of what remains. This is necessary, because although "King of Texas" will take two hours to broadcast, commercials included, it's only about 95 minutes long. Any moderately full "King Lear" on stage lasts more than twice as long, so it necessarily does much more.

Playing the equivalent to Gloucester is Roy Scheider, and, yes, he loses his eyes in a scene as unsettling on screen as in Shakespeare. But his sons are short-changed: Evil Emmett (Matt Letscher) never gets to strut the sex appeal that excites Lear's older daughters, and good but feckless Thomas (Liam Waite) hardly gets to do anything at all -- no madness, no terror, no confrontation with his brother.

Surviving transition well is Lear's Fool (doubling as Kent), who is converted into Rip (David Alan Grier), a black slave with a full dose of sass. Smaller roles fare well, too -- Oswald, Cornwall and Albany hold their own as the creepy Warnell (Richard Lineback), sadistic Highsmith (Patrick Bergen) and dithering Tumlinson (Colm Meaney).

The great innovation of "King of Texas" is to create a fuller political subplot than in most "King Lears." The King of France who marries the youngest daughter becomes Menchaca (Steven Bauer), a sympathetic Mexican whose land is invaded, rather than vice versa -- though Menchaca's people are filmed with a reverence that oozes political correctness.

In his performance, Stewart honors Lear's cruelty and disdain. He knows you can't curry favor with the audience and still do justice to Lear. He has the chops to storm against the storm ("blow, ya bastard winds!") and also wander in mad bewilderment. At the end, he makes an impressive Old Testament patriarch, bewailing the dead.

But the result is far more Western than Shakespeare. Director Uli Edel pays homage to those old directors of Westerns, Anthony Mann and Howard Hawks, each of whom envisioned a "King Lear" film. I imagine they'd more appreciate Edel's achievement in the genre they knew best.

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