A Balkan Lear
There are still a few weeks left to catch Robert Falls' production of King Lear at the Sidney Harman Hall of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, so if you are in Washington and haven't seen it yet, beg, borrow or steal for tickets. I am not generally a fan of "contemporary" versions of Shakespeare, and Falls' Lear, with its occasional nudity and explicit sexual content, can fairly be described as envelope-pushing. But I agree wholeheartedly with those critics who have said this Lear compares with Ian McKellen's fabled production of Richard III as a version of Shakespeare that underscores the Bard's continuing relevancy without sacrificing his poetry or traditional standards of performance.
By transposing the play to the war-torn Yugoslavia of the 1990s, Falls burns into our skulls the sheer carnage wrought by Lear's petulant foolishness. Stacy Keach, progressing from arrogant warlord to frail old man, is an extraordinary Lear, and the supporting cast matches him in every respect; Edward Gero's Gloucester, Howard Witt's Fool, Kim Martin-Cotten's Goneril, Kate Arrington's Regan and Jonno Roberts' Edmund are unforgettable. Certain scenes from this production are burned forever in my memory: a blinded, dying Gloucester kneels near a pit, as black-veiled figures--to the accompaniment of women chanting a Balkan lament for the dead--haul white-shrouded corpses for burial. The last body to be hurled into the pit is Gloucester himself.
Falls' Lear is theater in the highest sense: it holds up a mirror to human nature, unchanging and horrifying, demonstrating that murderous ambition can lurk as viciously behind a polyester suit as a silken doublet. It may not be the only production of Lear you ever need to see, but it is as fresh and riveting as any version I can remember.