Theatre Mirror Reviews - "King Lear"

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note: entire contents copyright 2000 by Beverly Creasey

Dimentia Regis
At New Rep

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

There are Lears and there are Lears. Most are powerful kings who rage against the world, then live to regret their folly at play's end: transformation, reconciliation and tragedy. That's the way "King Lear" is always staged. But not at New Rep. Newton's New Repertory Theatre offers a king in the throes of dementia --- an aged man with waxing and waning alertness, and bouts of agitation. Director Rick Lombardo draws on the horrors of Alzheimer's disease to create a Lear who's unable to deal with the deterioration of his brain, let alone the deterioration of his kingdom.

Surprisingly enough Lombardo's lead comes right from Shakespeare's text. Lear calls himself a "poor, infirm and weak, despised old man." When Austin Pendleton as the frail monarch laments that "We are not ourselves," he is mourning the loss of his mind. If you've witnessed an elderly parent's panic when he realizes his memory is slipping --- when in fleeting moments of clarity he says "I'm not myself anymore" --- then you will recognize this Lear.

Pendleton taps into the fear and the desperate rage. His voice crackles as if the very act of finding words is difficult. He hesitates as if he's lost his train of thought. He rambles at fever pitch as if time were the enemy. He doesn't know morning from night. His impatient daughters condemn his "unsightly" behavior. Even his one understanding daughter is moved to pity at what has become of her father. "Is this the face which...led armies?" she asks, and then asks the heartbreaking question: 'Do you know me?" How many children have asked just that of a parent robbed of recognition by dementia.

Besides Pendleton's fragile portrayal, New Rep offers a wealth of compelling performances, chief among them the evil Edmund. Colin Stokes plays him as a charismatic villain, a man on whom treason and deceit "ride easy" ... a man so charming few can resist his lies. Neither of Lear's ungrateful daughters can. (And if Lear isn't chewing up the scenery, someone has to!) Ken Cheeseman as Lear's beloved "all licensed" fool cavorts like a savvy prisoner trying to laugh his way out of a jail sentence. Shawn Sturnick as Edgar, the good brother duped by Edmund, delivers the emotional goods in the tender scenes with his father, Gloucester, elegantly portrayed by Richard Bowden.

Scott Barrow is delightful as the smarmy retainer Oswald. Jeffrey Calloway is a strong suitor/husband for Cordelia (Laiona Michelle) and Derek Nelson lends a quiet grace to the heroic son-in-law who finally puts a stop to the treachery at court --- although his intervention comes too late. James Butterfield too has the stuff of nobility (and the fun of a cheeky disguise) as Kent. As this is a tragedy, "general woe" afflicts the two wicked sisters, played with ice in their veins by Rachel Harker and Julie Jirousek, as well as Lear's loyal daughter, played with righteous reticence by Laiona Michelle.

The less said about the costumes the better. Yards of dry goods are draped over actors' shoulders or unceremoniously tacked to their backs as if a seamstress could appear at any moment to unpin the fabric and make it into something. The chainlink fence and metal junkyard backdrop brings visions of "West Side Story" more to mind than Shakespeare, but it's Lombardo's insightful interpretation of the dissolution of a noble mind which buoys this Lear.

"King Lear" (till 23 October)
54 Lincoln Street, NEWTON HIGHLANDS

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide