Tuesday - Sunday through August 17, free, 8:00
Fut! Another day, another Lear. Over the last several years, New York City has been inundated with major productions of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. There’s been Michael Pennington at Theatre for a New Audience, Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Frank Langella at BAM, and Kevin Kline and Sam Waterston at the Public. And now Rochester native John Lithgow, at the age of sixty-eight, has taken on the role of the king and father descending into madness. First performed at Shakespeare in the Park in the Delacorte’s inaugural season, 1962, with Frank Silvera and last seen there in 1973 with James Earl Jones, this latest Public Theater presentation of King Lear features two-time Tony winner Lithgow (The Changing Room, Sweet Smell of Success) as an emotional Lear as he deals with the betrayal of his two conniving older daughters, Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), after casting aside his beloved youngest, Cordelia (Jessica Collins). He also exiles his loyal friend, the Earl of Kent (Jay O. Sanders), who reappears in disguise as Caius to protect his lord, the fading king. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester (Clarke Peters) is misled by his bastard son, Edmund (Eric Sheffer Stevens), into believing his first-born, Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji), is plotting patricide.
One of the most fascinating things about King Lear is how adaptable it is, that even when the same dialogue is being used, focus can shift dramatically from one character to another in different productions. In this case, veteran Shakespeare in the Park director Daniel Sullivan (The Comedy of Errors, The Merchant of Venice) highlights Goneril and Regan, but Bening, in her return to the New York stage for the first time in a quarter-century, is too stolid as the former, and Hecht (The Assembled Parties, A View from the Bridge) adds too much ironic humor as the latter. Jeremy Bobb’s laconic Oswald is stronger than Stevens’s fanciful Edmund, which is usually the other way around, while Iwuji transforms from carefree Edgar to the pathetic Poor Tom very well. Lithgow is a sad, heart-rending Lear, but Sullivan too often leaves him virtually alone on John Lee Beatty’s set, a large wooden platform backed with a tall screen covered with metallic rods that are like sharp sticks; Lear loses his grandeur too quickly, his minions peeling away as his mind goes. Shakespeare in the Park mainstay Sanders nearly steals the show as Kent/Caius, the only one who truly stands by his king. Steven Boyer is a fine Fool, but there’s not enough of him. The blinding scene is disappointingly tame, but Tal Yarden’s video projections enhance the storm, there’s an exciting sword fight near the end that draws gasps, and percussion played by two men on either side of the stage intensifies the overall ominous mood, resulting in a worthwhile, if not stellar, version of an oft-seen play that, amazingly, rarely bores even after repeated viewings. However, just when it seemed safe to put Lear to bed for at least a little while, it’s been announced that English actor Joseph Marcell will be starring in a production at the NYU Skirball Center this fall by Shakespeare’s Globe, the company that just performed Twelfth Night and Richard III on Broadway to such great acclaim. Fut! indeed. . . .
(In addition to waiting on line at the Delacorte, the Queens Museum, Snug Harbor Cultural Center, Lehman College, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and the Public Theater to get free tickets, you can also enter the daily virtual ticketing lottery online here.)