- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fathers and daughters grapple for domination in director Robert Falls’ sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll-charged production of “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Originally staged at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Mr. Falls’ vision of the Bard’s vengeful tragedy of the violent follies of youth and old age eschews the classical fairy tale about ungrateful offspring in favor of an in-your-face approach that centers on sexual, familial and power politics.

Mr. Falls’ eccentric, visceral staging is set in the 1990s in the Balkans - a once-sophisticated place ripped apart by wars, ethnic cleansing, and casual brutality. Walt Spangler’s set features gilded towers and garish rococo decor suggesting power and stability in the first act that gives way to a scorched, littered wasteland where the once-grand towers are blackened and charred, an iconic image evoking Sept. 11. Ana Kuzmanic’s alternately scuzzy and sleazy costumes and a blaring mix of Slavic pop and Middle Eastern music complete the grim picture.

In this lawless land of vodka, hard drugs, and amorality, King Lear (Stacy Keach) divides his kingdom between his three daughters: the lingerie-clad, boozy socialite Regan (Kate Arrington, a more lethal and disquieting version of Paris Hilton), the grasping, libidinous Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and the truthful and unvarnished Cordelia (Laura Odeh).

Lear does this “to avoid strife,” yet the opposite occurs when he banishes his once-favorite, Cordelia, because of her honesty. The two remaining daughters turn harpy on their dad, declaring him mad and unceremoniously booting him out of his own realm with his Fool (Howard Witt, a strikingly funereal clown; a Brechtian figure in white-face and black clothes).

The slugfest doesn’t end there. Goneril and Regan vie to get busy with Edmund (Jonno Roberts) and blithely try to off their husbands - and even each other - to get their man.

While sexual frankness is one of the aspects of this challenging production (there is not only nudity but depictions of various sex acts and rape), the preponderance of wartime horrors and abuses of power are even more darkly disturbing. In one unforgettable scene, medical workers pile dead bodies in white plastic bags onstage that are casually rolled into a mass grave.

The blind Duke of Gloucester (Edward Gero, both towering and touching) is among the last to tumble in. When Lear carries in the dead Cordelia at the end, it’s clear the nude young woman was brutally raped before being murdered.

Mr. Keach makes an interesting Lear, but not a great one. He’s a maelstrom of bluster and rage in the opening scenes and has nowhere to go emotionally. However, once exiled as a doddering trash picker, Mr. Keach’s Lear beautifully expresses the subdued turbulence of a once-great man brought low. He also brings touches of perverse humor to Lear’s plight, a welcome respite from all the carnage.

After a time, you become numb to the sadism. Yet by the time Goneril slips a plastic bag over her sister’s head and blows her brains out, you think, “Oh well, two less venial tarts in the world” rather than expressing shock. Somehow you doubt that’s what Shakespeare intended with “King Lear.”

WHAT:”King Lear,” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through July 19.

TICKETS: $35 to $84.75

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org


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