In his recent book "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," critic Harold Bloom writes of the "apparent infinitude" of "King Lear." Director Michael Kahn's production at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre makes bold attempts to tackle -- and interpret -- that immensity.
The biggest and boldest of these attempts works so well that it compensates for a lead performance that, at this early point in the run, lacks some of the commanding fervor necessary to make the role deeply affecting.
Kahn's most audacious directorial choice is casting a hearing-impaired actress -- Monique Holt -- in the role of Lear's youngest and most beloved daughter, Cordelia. Symbolically, at least, this is a defensible decision. After all, Cordelia is the daughter who responds, "Nothing," when asked what she can add to her sisters' gushing expressions of love for their father. "I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth," she continues.
Holt signs these words, which are spoken by the actor playing the Fool. Some justification can be found for this as well -- even though, as written, Cordelia and the Fool never appear on stage together. The characters' separation has led scholars to believe they were played by the same actor, casting that also helped audiences recall Cordelia even after her father has banished her.
Although this reasoning may sound like a stretch, Kahn's connection between Cordelia and the Fool proves highly effective on stage, thanks largely to the moving performances of Holt and of Floyd King, as the Fool. King's Fool clearly dotes on Cordelia; he cries when he speaks her farewell words at the end of the scene. The actor has played this role before -- 15 years ago, when the theater was located at the Folger Library -- and he has a natural affinity for it, whether reciting lines to the tune of "Pop Goes the Weasel" or chiding the king, "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise," which is the gist of the play.
Ted van Griethuysen has more of a struggle with Lear, admittedly one of the most difficult parts ever written. Lear is a supreme egotist, a man convinced he is owed not only total obedience, but total love.
Van Griethuysen plays him as somewhat doddering from the start, slightly palsied and walking with the stiff gait of aching muscles. Kahn opens the play with a birthday party for Lear; his birthday cake is in the form of a map of his kingdom, which he divides with a large knife. Lear's family, friends and courtiers sing "Happy Birthday" to him, and this childish celebration suits the inanity of Lear's subsequent rash behavior.
Yet by emphasizing the foolishness of the man without showing his prior majesty and authority, van Griethuysen undercuts the impact of Lear's precipitous fall. The actor's only truly heart-rending moments come in his recognition scene with the blinded Gloucester (powerfully played by David Sabin) and in his final scenes with Cordelia.
Kahn emphasizes the family, as opposed to the political, side of the tragedy. The play is, to a certain extent, a fairy tale about a king and his three daughters. However, the performances of Tana Hicken and Jennifer Harmon, as Lear's conniving, power-hungry older daughters, Goneril and Regan, stretch the wicked-sisters angle to the point of caricature -- especially when Regan murders a servant by plunging the spike heel of her snakeskin shoe into his neck, then lends the shoe to her husband to finish blinding Gloucester.
With its double plots, about Lear and Gloucester, the play has a number of major roles, and most are splendidly cast -- particularly chilly Andrew Long as Gloucester's evil bastard son, Edmund; sensitive Cameron Folmar as his good-hearted brother, Edgar; and stalwart Henry Woronicz as loyal Kent.
Designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili has set the production in an unspecified modern era, creating a dark, industrial-like set that looks appropriately apocalyptic.
In the end, Kahn has produced a bleak, despairing "King Lear," which is as it should be.
In his book, Bloom reluctantly agrees with 19th-century critic Charles Lamb that the tragedy may be unplayable. The current production only partly disproves that. Still, in its inspired moments, the Shakespeare Theatre's "Lear" lives up to the play's challenges -- both for the actors and the audience.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, noon Sept. 22 and Oct. 20. Through Oct. 24