PlayMakers Repertory Company' epic presentation of King Lear, flamboyantly mounted in two very different versions by OBIE Award-winning British director Mark Wing-Davey in two very different versions, is must-see drama of the highest quality. The longer version includes almost all of the 1623 First Folio text of English playwright William Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece of paternal hubris, filial love, and gross filial ingratitude, included two flashes of full-frontal male nudity, an extended scene of simulated sex, and a graphic scene in which a character's eyes are gouged out with one of them cooked in a hot skillet. It ran for three and a half hours (including a 15-minute intermission) on press night (Jan. 17th).
The shorter version, which provides almost as much dramatic bang for the buck, skipped the nude scenes, retained the simulated sex and graphic eye-gouging scenes, and ran one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission, Sunday afternoon (Jan. 18th).
The interlude in the longer version of King Lear in which a nude Edmond (tall, handsome African-American actor Charles Parnell) shows off his finely chiseled physique by doing pushups in the shower seems gratuitous; but the much later scene in that version in which Lear, during a fit of madness, manically sheds his tattered rags is emblematic of how far the crazed monarch has strayed from the path of sanity. The simulated sex — in which a fully clothed Edmond and Goneril (Rebecca Wisocky) go at it like two dogs in heat in a rusty construction cage suspended high over the stage but traveling above the stage toward the audience as the frenzy of its inhabitants peaks — helps to establish that their unseemly adulterous relationship has already begun, while other important events are still unfolding on the stage below.
The long version, with almost the full First Folio text to dramatize, occasionally seems to lose some dramatic steam as scenes run on too long. There is a danger of confusing those audience members who have not read, or do not remember, the play. And the Fool (Ray Dooley) grows increasingly tedious as he rattles on and sings song after song.
The short version, with Gloucester's "leap" off the white cliffs of Dover the only lamentable omission, keeps a much together dramatic focus. Even the cast's Shakespearean diction seems crisper.
Both versions boast a luminous performance by Michael Winters in the title role of the proud but aging king, intent on laying down his royal burdens, but foolish in his choice of successors. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia (Karen Walsh), fails to fawn over him sufficiently, he banishes her and bestows her part of the kingdom on her unctuous but palpably insincere older sisters, Goneril and Regan (Carolyn Baeumler). Then, once the transfer of power is complete, Regan and Goneril reveal their true natures by trimming their father's retinue and making his foolish premature retirement a living hell — so much so that their gross filial ingratitude not only drives the old king away from their castles, but makes him mad.
Michael Winters does a superlative job of portraying the King Lear's haughty pride followed by Job-like suffering: his terrifyingly swift descent into madness after his daughters betray him and his subsequent brief return to sanity after he is reunited with Cordelia. Winters gives PlayMakers patrons a Lear for the ages.
Karen Walsh is likewise excellent as poor, sweet, mistreated Cordelia; and Carolyn Baeumler and especially Rebecca Wisocky are terrific as the hellcats Regan and Goneril, who will fight tooth and claw for an ever-greater portion of their father's kingdom and — like two really nasty alley cats in heat — will quite literally do anything to win the love of Edmond.
Charles Parnell is wonderfully wicked as the treacherous Edmond, the bastard younger son of the Earl of Gloucester (Ronn Carroll). Whether playing earnest Edgar, Edmond's (legitimate) older brother and Gloucester's heir, or "Mad Tom," the identity that he assumes on the heath, John Feltch proves to be a crowd favorite. And Ronn Carroll is quite good as foolish old Gloucester, so easily hoodwinked by Edmond, who uses a forged letter to get their father to turn against Edgar and cast him out.
Ray Dooley is terrific as the Fool, and Kenneth P. Strong gives a passionate performance as King Lear's best friend, the Earl of Kent, whom the irate monarch sends into exile when Kent takes Cordelia's part and tries to get his liege to reconsider his harsh and hasty decision to banish her.
Michael Babbitt is a consummate villain as Regan's brutal husband, the Duke of Cornwall; Jeffrey Blair Cornell adds a far more sympathetic portrait of Goneril's husband, the conscience-stricken Duke of Albany; Jeffery West is good as Goneril's devoted steward Oswald; and Brandon Michael Smith contributes a crisp cameo as Cordelia's steadfast suitor, the King of France.
Early 20th century Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley once claimed that "King Lear is too huge for the stage," not only pointing to the length of the script but the power of the emotions unleashed and the almost unbearable poignancy of the suffering of the title character. In the long version of PlayMakers Repertory Company's presentation of King Lear, guest director Mark Wing-Davey has come a close as anyone in my memory to getting it all right.
Of course, Wing-Davey benefits from outstanding performances by a stellar cast of guest artists and PRC company members, the bleak and barren post-Cold War world created by British scenic designer Narelle Sissons and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, the striking array of drab modern Eastern European fashions and colorful Elizabethan outfits created by Romanian costume designer Marina Draghici, and the soundscape devised by sound designer M. Anthony Reimer to underscore the acting.
Whether you select the long version or the short version, make sure you choose PRC's magnificent production of King Lear for your mid-winter entertainment. Triangle audiences will be talking about it for a long, long time to come.
Second Opinion: Raleigh, NC News & Observer correspondent Roy C. Dicks' Review: http://newsobserver.com/features/story/3254180p-2910239c.html [inactive 4/04].
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents King Lear Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 20-24 and 27-31 and Feb. 3-7, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 and 8, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Note 1: Dates of the three-hour First Folio performances, with nudity: Jan. 20, 22, 24, 25, 28, and 30 and Feb. 3, 5, 7, and 8. Dates of two-hour abridged version: Jan. 21, 23, 27, 29, and 31 and Feb. 1, 4, and 6. Note 2: There with be sign-language interpretation, audio description, Braille programs, and large-print programs at the January 23 performance.) $20-$32, except $40 opening night (Jan. 17) and $10 Tuesday Community Night. (Note 3: PRC offers discounts for seniors, students, and youth.) 919/962-PLAY (7529) or firstname.lastname@example.org. Playmakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=9. First Folio E-Text (1623): http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/ShaKLF.html.