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Extreme 'Lear': Robert Falls gets audacious with the great tragedy, but did Stacy Keach get the memo?

You can set "King Lear" on the moon, or -- like the Goodman Theatre's endlessly audacious Robert Falls -- in a post-apocalyptic Eastern European world of guns, vodka, petty fiefdoms and crushing sexual cruelty. No matter. This great play will still try to spin around the same axis.

You will either walk with Lear on his fall toward the most painful kind of self-knowledge or you will stand, open-mouthed in the nearby rubble, and stare coldly at a body hastening toward the same death that awaits us all.To watch Falls' astonishingly nihilistic "Lear," a colossal, eye-popping operatic production that has defiantly shorn the play of its decency, is to peek out onto some kind of terrifying no-man's land laid out before you with the most brutal kind of precision.

This is a "Lear" in which even that selfless servant Kent, whom some of us have spent our entire adult lives admiring, picks up a tire iron with brutal, violating intent. Has our world really come to that?

It is legitimate, of course, for a world-class theatrical artist such as Falls to make the case that, yes, it has. Or, in the worlds of Slobodan Milosevic or Nicolae Ceausescu or the fall of Baghdad, it surely did. And whatever barbs one might throw at Falls' unctuous, arrogant auteurism -- and there are narrative liberties taken here that will have Chicago's tragic purists spitting nails in the Goodman Theatre's direction -- this is a carefully wrought directorial vision expressed with such intensity and detail that it envelops its audience in a small-time world of expansive scale.

Falls' "Lear" is a show that deserves to move beyond Chicago, and it will set people talking wherever it lands. And at least half the room will be arguing that it doesn't have much to do with Shakespearean tragedy.

Some will hate this show. I deeply admire much of it -- especially the consistency, profundity, clarity and audacity of its conception. But even when viewed by its own rules, there is a gaping hole in the show's side. Falls knows precisely what he wants to do with everyone in the play, with one exception. And that's the guy whose name makes up the title and who is supposed to be our way into the play.

Actually, no Shakespearean director is obliged to follow some rule of tragic magnitude or even to consider the full vision of a play. "King Lear" will survive the Falls "Lear," just as it survived those cheery, tacked-on endings common in the 19th Century.

When it comes to the depiction of human cruelty -- or the evocation of the arbitrary nastiness of the cosmos -- this is a "Lear" sans pareil. Here, that privileged bad-boy Falls is like a middle-age, Midwestern football hooligan given all the theatrical toys money can buy. Whether it's popping one of poor Gloucester's eyes into a frying pan or lubricating some of the duller scenes with scenes of unscripted copulation, this show displays a twisted, seriocomic sensibility that lands somewhere between Jacobean tragedy and the Tarantinoesque. School groups be warned.

No modern American director is better than Falls at making a play's iconic moments pop with fresh irreverence. Here, the first lines of dialogue are delivered by two men at urinals. When Lear divides his kingdom, he cuts up a piece of cheap cake doled out at a drunken party held in his honor. And Edgar -- typically a paragon of filial virtue -- is rendered as a pill-popping rich kid.

Often, these counterintuitive characterizations work brilliantly. Edward Gero's superbly acted Gloucester, for example, brilliantly captures the lazy stupidity of a second-tier arriviste -- he calls to mind some sad-eyed patronage worker in a city government under federal investigation. Jonno Roberts' deftly underplayed Edmund is, aptly, a nightmare to watch. And Laura Odeh's complex Cordelia is not the usual pure soul, but an ineffectual girl from a rough family who tries but always knows she can't escape.

Falls goes over the top in the case of Lear's daughters Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotton) and Regan (Kate Arrington), who have colorful moments but read mostly as strangely costumed, sexually obsessed ugly sisters who change little in the course of the night. He's playing with archetype, sure, but also enjoying it too much.

Often, the actors' hearts leaven Falls' excesses. Steve Pickering's Kent does shocking things, but the actor's soul burns through nonetheless. And although Falls has turned Albany (a character who usually sees the error of his ways) into an amoral incarnation of Edward Albee's George, the actor Kevin Gudahl salvages some humanity.

Which leaves us with Lear -- not the most desirable order of priority. Stacy Keach, a distinguished and truthful actor, offers a performance of characteristic detail but insufficient scale. His "Lear" -- sad, fusty, overwhelmed, uncertain, clinging to what's left of his world -- is both truthful and intermittently moving, especially in the second act. But he's like a single-story urban artifact, beloved of preservationists but crumbling at the hands of a city planner more interested in the brutalist suburban skyscrapers.

Keach, who tackles Lear as if this is a tragedy (which it ain't), doesn't fully belong to Falls' world yet alone sits at its center. It's a balance that could be fixed, if Falls paid less attention to the writhings at the side and more to the capable star lost in the middle.

After the first scene, we're left wondering whether Lear is the last half-decent leader this wretched place of Falls' imagination ever had, or whether he's a loathsome, brutal dictator about to get both a show trial and his comeuppance at the hands of the mobster family he created. By the end of the night, it sure feels as if Falls licked his lips, kissed off any last remnants of tragic obligation and picked the latter. Keach, a tragic actor in the grand tradition, hasn't yet fully imbibed the Kool-Aid.

"King Lear"When: Through Oct. 22Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutesTickets: $20-$75 at 312-443-3800

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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