Forget Kafka, forget Beckett. In King Lear, Shakespeare may have penned the bleakest drama ever to grace a stage. The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park hasn’t taken on the tragedy since 1973 (when James Earl Jones had the title role), and after the last few years’ run of light, lively comedies, however delightful some may have been, it’s refreshing to see it tackle a work with so much gravitas, grimness be damned.
That said, of course the play’s directed by Daniel Sullivan, who recently helmed the series’ productions of The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It and All’s Well That Ends Well, and he’s chosen for his unfortunate protagonist John Lithgow, an actor best known for his comic gifts, though his career has encompassed many roles. But it’s clear from the first ritualistic percussive beats that usher in this production that this is not a show to be taken lightly. In the opening scene, the abdicating king asks his three daughters each to earn a third of his kingdom by stating in front of the court how much they love him. Lithgow’s Lear laughs a lot as he tries to elicit the answer he wants from his favorite, Cordelia (Jessica Collins). But even before he gives way to a fit of frustrated spleen at her undemonstrative answer and disowns her, the sense of foreboding and unease on stage is palpable, and it’s hardly a surprise when the irascible king banishes his faithful friend, the Earl of Kent (Jay O. Sanders) for defending Cordelia, who’s quickly spirited off to France by the one suitor who remains true after she’s disinherited.
Lear’s retirement plan is to divide his time between the households of his sanctimonious, scheming older daughters Goneril (Annette Bening) and Regan (Jessica Hecht), but the inconvenience and expense of entertaining his hundred retainers leads them to conspire to refuse the now powerless ex-king the rights they’ve promised. After they strip him of his friends and followers, he runs, half-mad and raging, into a violent storm with just his fool (Steven Boyer) and Kent, who’s returned in disguise to continue serving him.
Set against a dark, evocative but largely unrepresentational backdrop, Sullivan’s production is fast-packed, clear, but somehow ultimately noncommittal. Lear’s folly in the first act sets in motion the clockwork mechanism that will destroy him, and this production tracks it through, step by step, competently enough. Lithgow excels at portraying the old king’s humiliation and downfall. His attempts to wheedle his daughters into letting him keep more of his followers is painful to watch, as is his willing embrace of prison, if it means being with Cordelia again. While Bening seems to have been overly influenced by some theory about birth order, her bossy, take-charge Goneril is as effective as Hecht’s fluttery, bloodthirsty Regan. Likewise, the Earl of Gloucester’s sons, good and evil (Chikwudi Iwuh and Eric Sheffer Stevens, respectively) are capably presented, and Iwuh, particularly, is quite moving as the unwilling aid to his father’s attempted suicide.
The inexorability of the tragedy, the enormity of the losses, the cruelty of hope restored and then crushed – it’s all there. But while the bleakness remains pervasive and undeniable in this production, ultimately it feels stolid and less moving than it should be. Perhaps that’s because, from the quips of the unhappy fool to the unrelenting blows of fortune, this tale is told with utter gravity. What’s missing, oddly enough, may be any real recognition for the play’s own bitter ironies and gallows’ sense of humor. Lithgow’s negotiating with his daughters begins to gesture in that direction, showing the horrifying inextricability of cruelty and comedy, but otherwise, this production seems in deadly earnest. And without that leavening, without the edge that could give lines like “The worst is not/So long as we can say, ‘this is the worst,’” their real impact, the play feels flat and the tragedy never truly touches us. Kafka, Beckett and Shakespeare season even despair with a bitter humor that accentuates its bite.