When one thinks of King Lear, the image of a half-naked, feeble old man wailing away on a dark stage comes readily to mind. Shakespeare’s tragedy is typically performed as a bleak meditation on man’s helplessness in an inhospitable universe. So the current Public Theater production, starring Kevin Kline as Lear and Michael Cerveris as Kent, is something of a departure. From the haunting (but not heavy) Sondheim score to the colorful and inventive staging, this King Lear is almost defiantly buoyant.
Kline’s such a genial charmer that his casting is rather unexpected, and it makes for some surprising theater as he eschews the somber gravitas that has come to define the role. The interpretation is daring and fresh; his eyes flash with vitality even at his most deranged. And because he makes palpable Lear’s strong constitution, his downward spiral is all the more striking. True, he may not plummet to the deepest depths of existential despair, but on the plus side we’re spared any teeth-gnashing histrionics.
What’s really remarkable about the production is that as talented as Kline is, the other actors aren’t blown off the cliffs of Dover. Of course Cerveris, himself as big a name in theater as Kline, holds his own with impassioned vigor. And seasoned pro Philip Goodwin is delightful as the sodden Fool. But the rest of the ensemble – too many to name – work together with a cohesiveness rarely seen in these star-studded vehicles.
While you may not walk away from this King Lear with a heavy heart and mind, there’s no escaping the play’s tragic conclusion. The corpse of Cordelia, the play’s most virtuous character, is still carried onstage in her father’s arms, the stage littered with bodies. Because most of what precedes this is so breezy, the scene’s not nearly as devastating as it could be. But with all the devastation happening on the world stage, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to seek a bit of escapism in Shakespeare.