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NY1 Theater Review: Shakespeare in the Park's 'King Lear'

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Summer in the city means Shakespeare in the Park. The Public Theater's latest offering at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park is a new staging of "King Lear" starring John Lithgow. NY1's Roma Torre filed the following review.

Shakespeare in the Park's pre-show announcement mentions this is the company's first staging of King Lear in the park since 1973. And there's good reason for the long hiatus. It's an extremely difficult play to get right. Unless all the elements are in place, the Bard's great tragedy doesn't hold up, and unfortunately, that is the case in this ill-fated production.

Right from the start when Lear disowns his youngest daughter Cordelia for not pledging sufficient affection for him, the story takes off on a horrific downward spiral. Without an ideal cast and direction, the play can turn unrelentingly bleak or unnecessarily melodramatic. This one suffers on both counts.

John Lithgow sure looks the part and he is an excellent actor, but his Lear comes off as less a king and more a foolish old guy who chose the wrong family members for his heirs. Of course, the tragedy of King Lear is a cautionary tale and a universal one, but without a sense that Lear's on top of the world, his fall becomes less dramatic. And once the die is cast, Lithgow's sustained note of fury and madness doesn't allow for much empathy. By play's end we're left numb to the mounting misery.

In the other principle roles, Lear's cruel daughters Goneril and Regan are played by Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht, and the problem here is miscasting. Both women are best suited to contemporary work. On this stage they're out of place.

In fact, none of the villains seems villainous enough. The virtuous characters, Cordelia, Gloucester and especially Kent, played by Jay O. Sanders, and Steven Boyer's "Fool,” fared better.

This is a rare stumble for director Daniel Sullivan who even failed to capitalize on the lush outdoor setting for the play's climactic scenes on the storm ravaged heath. Between the lackluster production and a disappointing set, what should have been an earth-shattering catharsis felt more like a mere tempest in a teapot.

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