- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2007

When the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of “King Lear” is in motion, it is entrancing. The chiseled physicality of the cast members and the nimble athleticism of their dance movements invigorate a play that is essentially about dementia and outliving your usefulness. This fluidity and energy is enhanced by Shayshahn MacPherson’s percussive music, punctuated with insistent drumbeats and shimmering wind-chime effects.

Director Alfred Preisser sets his “Lear,” co-produced with the Folger, in ancient Mesopotamia circa 1800 B.C., when “an eye for an eye” became a legal precedent and the Code of Hammurabi reigned. Mr. Preisser also looked to Margaret Mead’s book “Sex and Temperament” as grounds for the production’s sprawling sexuality, with its strained intimations — unsupported by Shakespeare’s text — of father-daughter bonds that are sensual as well as familial.

When King Lear (Andre De Shields) arranges politically advantageous marriages for his three daughters, Goneril (Chantal Jean-Pierre), Regan (Deidra LeWan Starnes) and Cordelia (Christiana Sajous), the theme of children as property is at work. However, a hint of lustful rivalry also arises in the handing off of nubile women to more virile younger men.

The competitiveness doesn’t end there. When the daughters respond to Lear’s famous question of who loves him best, Regan and Goneril respond with flowery words meant to seduce more than flatter. Cordelia’s honest answer is like a splash of cold water in a steamy room — she is not trying to be sultry, just tell the truth.

In the second act, Goneril and Regan vie for the affections of Edmund (Ty Jones), the Duke of Gloucester’s (Harold Surratt) vengeful illegitimate son, with the predatory sexual candor of the contestants trying to seduce Flava Flav on “The Flavor of Love.” Flesh unlined and old is at the forefront, underscoring the production’s theme that what goes awry with the king and his family is embedded in their very natures and in a society that prizes youth over wisdom.

This “King Lear” exults in the corporeal, and the visual scenes are the most potent, especially when Regan and Goneril scheme against their failing father, lording above him like Amazons on raised wooden platforms and gradually hemming him in like a trapped animal.

It is during the speeches that “King Lear” runs aground, as the quality of diction and command of Shakespeare’s language teeters between accomplished and almost laughably wooden. Some of the actors mouth their lines as if reading off cards, while others reel off the speeches with naturalness and ease, notably Miss Starnes as the coldhearted schemer Regan, Mr. Jones as the disarming and manipulative Edmund, and the shape-shifting Danyon Davis as Gloucester’s legitimate son, Edgar.

The erratic and melodramatic delivery of the dialogue — not least by Mr. De Shields in the title role — results in unexpected comic moments. The overall playful friskiness of the production often occurs at the expense of dramatic weight, the exception being Ken Schatz as the Fool. He uses pratfalls and waggish humor befitting a court jester to great effect, showing that sometimes the best way to foreshadow potentially tragic events is through slapstick comedy.

**

WHAT: “King Lear” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 18.

TICKETS: $32 to $50

PHONE: 202/544-7077

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