Saturday, February 1, 2014

How are the mighty fallen: Langella's "King Lear"

Harry Melling, Frank Langella, Steven Pacey
in Chichester Festival Theatre's King Lear
(photo by Richard Termine)

Yes, it's certainly Frank Langella's King Lear, as one would expect it to be and, perhaps, as it should be. But if everything revolves around the grave, magnetic center of Chichester Festival Theatre's production at the intimate BAM Harvey Theater, that doesn't mean that the show's satellites lack their own pull.

First to meet our eyes and impress is a simple but variable set design by Robert Innes Hopkins--variable not only in what can be done to it but also what we can imagine through it. It creates a rugged, rustic, elemental environment, but even the general winter's chill throughout BAM's theater--tip: don't divest yourself of your sweater--feels in character with the chilling events onstage.

Vibrant performances are especially offered by Max Bennett as Edmund, by turns, devious and a hoot ("Gods, stand up for bastards!") and Harry Melling as Fool with sizzling, infinite energy over sustained engagement. Of the three contentious women setting off the tragedy to come, Catherine McCormack, Lear's scheming Goneril, seems most her father's daughter. Regrettably, Isabella Laughland's Cordelia leaves me wondering. Promising flickers of expressiveness play across her facial features from time to time, but the performance lacks stable focus and embodied authority. Whenever she spoke her lines while not facing my direction, the lack of a face to try to figure out only served to further diminish her.

When Langella, 76, made his first royal entrance through a thicket of wooden planks, I watched him as I might watch a dancer. The rewards came quickly. I immediately saw a battered battle ship heading into more fire, too big and unwieldy to turn itself around in time. Ultimately, he will indeed run out of time.

He enters stooped, rigid, harboring rage. His body is one big tangle, but don't dare glance away: He's not dead yet. 

With every encounter and every directive, he uses whatever power is left in his body to dominate. He gets in your face. Further along, he grabs Goneril in a maneuver so swift and decisive, I missed it. He's a raptor diving, striking some hapless creature on the forest floor; those creatures can die from fear alone.

Langella looks ready to pop McCormack's arm right out of its socket as he curses her. ("How sharper than a serpent's tooth...") For good measure, he spits in her palm. Later in the play, he will enact a scene of perverse misogyny, once again, showing that, no matter how decrepit and out of his wits, this king can still depend upon anger to fuel life. Now he can move quite well, thank you. Hate is amazing that way.

I imagine the young actors sharing the stage with this monster--this master--and thinking to themselves, Damn! Pinch me! But I'm thinking the same: I got to see Frank Langella rocking King Lear. I must be dreaming.

King Lear, directed by Angus Jackson, runs through February 9. For schedule details and tickets, click here.

BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

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