Mad Monarch

The peerless Alvin Epstein leads a colorful cast in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's King Lear, originally co-produced with the Boston University School of Theater. Lear is a role, like The Tempest's Prospero and Endgame's Hamm, that rewards a mature actor's years of experience and practice. Epstein brings to the role more experience than most and dazzles with a tour de force performance. His Lear is whimsical and cocky, small in stature but unflinchingly charismatic. When he goes mad, he is shaken to the bone, and his withered body is no less a victim than his mind. Epstein's voice contains both Lear's regal baritone and his shrill, foolish falsetto, not to mention all the angry, confused, and betrayed tones in between.

When we think of Lear, we think of the heath because it is there that the fragile, old man Lear has become loses himself completely, with the storm's howling wind a representation from nature of his ravaged mind. The heath is a barren, cold place—as much a mental space as a physical one—where we must confront hubris, folly, and the consequences they produce.

The stage at the Annex at La MaMa ETC, a cavernous, barn-like space, is covered with shredded rubber that, from any seat in the house, looks like wood chips or compost from a forest floor. Walking on this textured material keeps the actors from being completely grounded; they wobble or tilt and seem to strain to find their footing. It's a brilliant touch that adds to the play's emotional landscape.

A simple area rug and several chairs represent the king's palace in the first scene. Although the action at the play's beginning is all pomp and circumstance as Lear haughtily divides his kingdom among his three daughters, the bare, rough set design suggests that the mental decay we are about to witness has already, to some extent, begun. Perhaps this devolution into madness, this return to nature, has been encroaching for some time.

Chandeliers—the set's small touch of civility—hang from the ceiling, as do large tin basins that are pierced through with taut cable wires. When they are bowed or plucked, the reverberations from these wire-basin contraptions fill the hollow space with deep, eerie groaning. Bill Barclay's sound and music design are first rate; the reverberations are accented with large gongs and drums whose echoes mix and meld into a cacophonous din as jarring as anything in Lear's own mind. Though the sounds often obscure the actors' lines, making it difficult to catch every word, they also fill the space, and us, with the sense of doom that this unstoppable march toward death should evoke.

The play is performed in the round—we are Lear's court—and certain actors play to and with the audience when appropriate. Benjamin Evett is a lusty Edmund, a character too modern to be all bad. His schemes for land and title mix the cunning of the biblical Jacob, the prototypical second son, with the bravado of a Wall Street power broker. And he's a delight to watch all the way.

Ken Cheeseman as the Fool provides the evening's other standout performance. His lanky, beanpole body doubles and sways with every word; visually he's the buffoon he should be, though his words are as straight and true as any dagger. Dressing him in a baseball cap that simply says "fool" may have been a bit over the top, but Cheeseman uses this and all his props for every inch they're worth.

Michael Fordan Walker (Cornwall) and Gabriel Levy (France) were the only real sore spots in the cast. Both seemed tongue-tied at times and too eager to stress the rhyme scheme in certain verses. But they are minor enough characters that their lapses can be forgiven.

This season, like most, is chock-full of Shakespeare, but Epstein's performance and Patrick Swanson's vigorous staging set this production apart. Toward the end of the first act, the Fool asks Lear, "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?" Epstein adds depth to the seemingly simply reply, "Why, no, boy; nothing can be made out of nothing," when he pauses before the final "nothing," as if he were about to give a different answer and thinks better of it at the last minute. His last "nothing" suggests that here, as in the production as a whole, there is a whole lot of something packed into every word.

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