March 31, 2007
Paying Tribute to "King Lear"
There have been a lot of King Lears of late. In just the past year, André De Shields played Shakespeare’s mad monarch in a Classical Theatre of Harlem production and Alvin Epstein did his interpretation at the La MaMa Annex. Sir Ian McKellen is scheduled to bring the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest version to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in September and then to take it on the road to the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Royce Hall in L.A. Even as I type, producer and theater professor Eric Krebs is putting the final touches on Considering Lear, his 75 minute adaptation of the usually three-hour play that is scheduled to run from April 3 to April 8. And of course, there was the Public Theater’s recent production starring Kevin Kline. In his Playbill notes, the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis suggests that Lear is so much in the air because its themes of a country “thrown into turmoil and war by the stubborn, foolish decisions of the men who lead it” plugs right into the current zeitgeist.
That sounds plausible. But sometimes when you keep saying the same thing over and over again, people tune you out. I couldn’t get anyone to go with me to the final performance of the Public’s production last weekend. My friend Bill, usually as big a theater junkie as I am, said he was going to be in the country; my friend Ellie, the onetime actress, also said she had something else to do, as did my sister, perhaps the biggest Kevin Kline fan in North America. My husband K just said no. I think seeing Christopher Plummer drag his Cordelia across the stage instead of carry her in two years ago in the Lincoln Center production may have soured K on the play forever. I can’t say I loved the Public’s Lear either. Kevin Kline, lithe and toned, had no trouble carrying his Cordelia and, as always, he spoke the text beautifully. But director James Lapine’s cool interpretation—right down to the hip Urban Outfitter-style costumes and spare occasional music by Stephen Sondheim—left me cold. Still, I’m glad I went.
I always like going to the Public. At a time when Broadway audiences can too often be mistaken for D.A.R. meetings or AARP rallies, its audiences are the dictionary definition of diverse. There were blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics at the performance I attended. And nearly as many young faces as old ones. It looked like New York. And I wish the Public would share its secret for getting them all to turn out with the rest of the theater community. It seems that people aren’t intimidated by the Public and so they’re comfortable enough to come and try out what it offers. “Do you know much about King Lear?” the twentysomething young woman sitting in the seat next to what would have been K’s seat leaned over and asked me during the intermission. I said I knew a little. “Well, can you tell me what’s going on with Lear’s son?’ she asked. “Lear doesn’t have a son,” I told her. “I thought he had five kids,” she replied. I explained that Lear only had three daughters and that the sons belonged to his friend Gloucester. She listened attentively and then turned and repeated everything I had said to the man with whom she was holding hands. He leaned forward to nod his thanks too.
I don’t tell this story to make fun of them. Shakespeare couldn’t have asked for a better audience. They laughed at his jokes, gasped at the betrayals and the killings, and shook their heads in sorrow as they and Lear realized his folly. And that’s why there can never be too many King Lears.