I am spoiled. I saw Derek Jacobi's King Lear in the spring at BAM (Donmar Warehouse production) and it has ruined me for life. I may never see a production as close to perfection as that was.
The new King Lear production at The Public alas is far from perfect. It was disappointing because I wanted to see Sam Waterston on stage. I wanted to finally see Arian Moayed in a show that I liked (hated Bengal Tiger--I know he's a great actor but just hated that show). I loved Michael McKean in Superior Donuts and wanted to see him in something else. The curious casting of Kelli O'Hara in a non-musical. Bil Irwin in ANYTHING.
So many reasons to check out this production. But it turned out to be a disaster. So glad this was the first show I raced back to see after my 6 weeks abroad. #sarcasm
Now to focus on the positive, this show has the best performance by an iron curtain I have ever seen. Seriously, give that chainmail curtain a Tony. Loved it. Seriously. I loved the layered transparency, the way it divided up the space, and the way it gave way to entrances and exits. The sound it made. It set a tone and a shape for the production. It was a wonderful choice. That said, an inanimate object should probably not be the focus of so much praise.
The animate objects were less successful in my opinion. Most people just felt oddly cast and uncomfortable in the roles they were in. Everyone was reciting their lines but it was as if none of them had any clue as to why they were there, what they were saying or what meaning they were supposed to be delivering. I know this sounds really harsh. But these are folks who I like and I was really disappointed in what they brought to this show.
Maybe I have been spoiled by some amazing interpretations of Shakespeare lately (Ralph Fiennes, Dominic West, the aforementioned Jacobi). Even so, I would have expected this cast to have offered some interesting if not sometimes successful interpretations. But everything about this production just felt off-kilter in the worst possible ways.
Waterston made a choice to make Lear doddering from the get-go and I'm afraid that was really problematic. Neutering him up front makes his descent more obvious and less dramatic. He is not regal at the start and so what he "loses" along the way doesn't have the same impact. Watching him lose his mind seemed to happen before the play started. All we have to watch is the aftermath--like this is an after-school special about what the kids are going to do when Daddy gets dementia.
One of the remarkable things about the Donmar production of Lear was that Goneril and Regan were both evil but in such different ways. Those actresses found solid characters to present and delivered their performances very differently. Here I felt like you could have exchanged one line reading for the other and neither was specific enough to matter.
I know some folks liked Seth Gilliam's Edmund. I was not charmed by him and I think you have to be to pull off that role.
I have previously ranted about the costume choices to anyone who would listen. But they were possibly some of the worst costumes I have ever seen--from the adult diaper poor Arian Moayed had to wear to the bathmat poor Kelli O'Hara had to wear. It was like someone did their thesis on "texture" and then costumed everyone in a different texture and said, ok my work is done. I just felt bad for everyone involved.
I will admit I left at intermission. I took as much as I could take.
One happy aside. As previously reported on twitter, the Public Theater toilets are new and fully operational. So yay for that.