Lear Window

Kevin Kline prepares to scale the mad king's heroic heights and war-torn politics

Lincoln Center, La MaMa, Classical Theatre of Harlem, and now the Public Theater: New York is about to take its fourth trip in three years through Shakespeare's King Lear, the giant, jagged, violent tragedy of power and madness that towers over the landscape of dramatic literature, luring actors to scale its daunting heroic heights. Except for the period of King George III's dementia, when it was banned in Britain, King Lear has always been a forceful presence on the English-speaking stage, and American actors have done their part to keep it there, from the barnstorming era of Edwin Forrest and Robert B. Mantell to the still-vivid memories Morris Carnovsky, Lee J. Cobb, and James Earl Jones. Still, four Lears in three years is a high average even for the most theater-struck city. Clearly somebody's perceiving a hidden link between the crazy, war-torn politics of our own time and the fairy-tale ancient Britain that goes wild, in Shakespeare's play, when an implacable, aging monarch tries to split his kingdom equally among his three daughters, and explodes when the youngest won't speak her set part in the divvying-up ceremony. After that comes betrayal, fury, lunacy, conspiracy, torture, blinding, murder, and civil war. If it doesn't sound like exactly what you get on CNN every night, it doesn't sound all that far away either.

Christopher Plummer, at Lincoln Center in 2004 with a production from Stratford, Ontario, was an austere, crusty, taut-mouthed Lear; Alvin Epstein, heading a Boston company that swooped into La MaMa Annex in the summer of 2006, veered startlingly from familial crotchetiness to leonine ferocity; Andre De Shields, all flash and fury, strode imperiously through CTH's production that fall, recapitulating his triumph this winter in Washington, DC. With what actor could the Public follow these powerhouse pillars of heroic acting? Answer, surprisingly: Kevin Kline. More known for elegantly eccentric high comedy and cerebral, poetic vulnerability, the star of films like A Fish Called Wanda and In & Out has been, among his Shakespearean roles onstage, a tenderly memorable Hamlet, a dashing, puckish Duke in Measure for Measure, and more recently a Falstaff more amiable than colossal. Is he ready to face the ascension of Mount Lear?

Whether he is or not, he's assembled a hardy team of experienced mountaineers to aid him in his climb. James Lapine, who's displayed his skill with stage imagery in both Shakespeare and hit Broadway musicals, will direct; Lapine's frequent collaborator Stephen Sondheim will have a hand in the score. Among Kline's onstage partners will be Tony nominee and Obie winner Larry Bryggman, who gave the Public an unforgettable Henry IV some years back, as Gloucester, and Tony winner Michael Cerveris, fresh from the title role of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, as Kent. Will Kline, with their aid, make it all the way to the top of Lear's fury and down again to the bottom of his helplessness? Don't say, "Never, never, never, never, never," until you see the performance—an actor of Kline's intelligence, imagination, and resource could well have the stuff in him to be far more than Lear's shadow.

King for a day: Kevin Kline
photo: Michal Daniel
King for a day: Kevin Kline

'King Lear, through March 18, The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette, 212-967-7555


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