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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

September 23, 1998. All rights reserved.

Review: `King Lear’

The New Jersey Shakespeare Festival has waited 19 years

to stage a new production of "King Lear." Artistic producer

Bonnie Monte says it has been on her agenda since she her arrival

in 1991, but she wanted to wait to produce it in the new theater.

The theater is here and Shakespeare’s tragi-fairy tale of filial

ingratitude

and royal deception is getting its due. Under Daniel Fish’s taut

direction

and with a substantial, if not towering, performance by Harris Yulin

in the title role, "King Lear" adds up to an admirable theater

experience. In an unusual bit of double-casting, Julyana Soelistyo

(a Tony nominee last season for "Golden Child") is terrific

playing both Cordelia and the Fool. As "the wheel comes full

circle,"

"King Lear" is the best production thus far of the festival’s

1998 season.

A four seasons veteran at the festival, Fish takes "Lear"

intriguingly out of the Bard’s prescribed pre-Christian Britain era.

He and his designers Christine Jones (set), Kaye Voyce (costumes),

Scott Zielinski (lighting), and David Maddox (sound), have staged

the masterpiece in a timeless landscape of flashing lights and dark

shadows. Under a sloped black firmament studded with tiny lights and

only the simplest and barest decor to serve the action, the

inhabitants

of Lear’s kingdom define their realm with the mixing and matching

of fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

While this appears both a tiresome trend this season and a catch-all

remedy for budgetary concerns, in this instance it works admirably.

There is a kind of "retro-noir" atmosphere created that suits

the converging and conflicting masterfully fashioned plot lines.

That "Lear" is considered to be one of the greatest plays

of all time has to be a daunting premise for any company. The themes

of old age and the different relationships of each child to his parent

in both the main and subplots, brings universal timelessness to each

new generation of viewers. Lear’s ageless references to the behavior

of politicians and infidelity brought snickers from the audience.

Briefly, the story details King Lear’s misapprehension of his one

daughter’s devotion causing him to divide his kingdom between the

remaining two daughters who have feigned their love. Things gets a

bit nasty when the wicked daughters strip their father of all power

and at the same time involve and seduce Edmund. Edmund is the bastard

son of the Earl of Gloucester, who, like the daughters, deceives his

father by denouncing his brother Edgar as a traitor. The resulting

web of deception results in a downward spiral of devastating

proportions.

The majestic sweep of the poetry is unsurpassed in all of Shakespeare.

It demands of the actors the most artful and brilliant exploration

of the characters. It is a pleasure to hear most of the actors

sounding

as if the exalted language coming from their lips was something they

spoke every day of their lives. The hand-to-hand combat scenes, as

directed by Rich Sordelet, are as real as they are gruesome. It always

helps to have a little blood spurting forth when flesh is cut. Fish

makes the scenes flow one into the other like a large dramatic

tapestry.

Yulin’s Lear will undoubtedly grow more courageous with

each performance. It is, to his credit, never less than intense.

However,

Yulin establishes a more secure and believable identity during the

second half of the play in which a poignant and desperate quality

enhances his performance.

As the eldest she-fox, Goneril, Kate Skinner frowns formidably as

she subtly reveals herself as a calculating she-tiger with heart of

cold marble. As No. 2 daughter, Regan, Michelle O’Neill projects an

icy Sharon Stone-like look. Abetted by a chillingly charismatic Grant

Goodman, who plays her husband, the sadistic Duke of Cornwall, O’Neill

surfaces a genuine aura of evil through her striking good looks.

Making

gentleness seem a crime gives Bernard K. Addison’s performance as

the Duke of Albany real heft.

As the Earl of Gloucester, Jack Ryland’s classy countenance is matched

by his dramatic authority. The equally authoritative and mad-inflected

performance of African-American actor Teagle F. Bougere is a stunner,

that is once he sheds the minstrel suit in which he first appears.

Mark Niebuhr is compellingly neurotic as his false brother Edmund.

It’s a tour-de-force for the petite and agile Soelistyo who

comprehensibly

spews out some of the most glorious allusions in Shakespeare (a feat

few Fools seem to master). Then, as the soft and gentle Cordelia,

she also makes her presence heart breaking.

The nobility in Henry Woronicz’ performance as the Earl of Kent,

Leer’s devotee, is contrasted against the villainy of Goneril’s

steward

played by Eric Hoffman. Like the title character, this "King

Lear"

is headstrong and full of changes.

— Simon Saltzman

King Lear, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Kirby

Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, on the campus of Drew University, Madison,

973-408-5600. $23 to $35. Through October 4.


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