It's a testimony to the talents of director Marshall W. Mason that the opening-night crowd for King Lear stayed to cheer his achievement. Because, despite Mason's expertise, this Arizona State University production of Shakespeare's most famous tragedy trades each triumph for a disaster: While the sets are wonderful, the costumes are dreadful; although the fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, they're inexpertly performed; for every stunning characterization, there's a distractingly bad student performance.
Mason, a multi-Obie winner and co-founder of the Circle Repertory Company in New York, joined the theater faculty at ASU a few years ago. With him came his impressive connections to the theater world--which have lured luminaries like Jerome Kilty, who plays Lear here, to ASU's stages--as well as a master's insight into difficult works like King Lear. But with ASU's graduate acting program on hold, Mason is having to make do with first- and second-year acting students, and--at least in this production--it shows. Lindsay Anderson clearly wasn't ready on opening night for the demands of her role as Cordelia. Her reading of the princess's handful of speeches was lifeless and quite awful, and her sallow performance is matched by a stageful of her peers.
There are even disappointing performances from seasoned professionals here. As Goneril, Robyn Allen--a talented Equity actress who's just entered ASU's school of theater--appears to be emulating the inert acting of Kathleen Butler Casselman, who plays Goneril's sister Regan. Lear's daughters are among Shakespeare's most wickedly wonderful characters, alternately arch and silly and handed speeches filled with sneering asides. But Allen and Casselman play them as haughty, bored Valley girls; they seem to have been cast for their ability to look stunning in brocaded evening gowns.
Only two students' performances are worth recalling. Jason KuyKendall is an outstanding Edgar, slipping effortlessly into several accents and stances in his impersonation of Old Tom. And Randi Klein is delightful as the Fool, a complicated role usually played by a young man. Impressive turns from a couple of faculty members help, too: David Vining is an impressively glowering Gloucester, and David Barker contemporizes the role of Kent with a casual reading and loose, sleepy body language. (Will we ever see a Shakespearean play produced in this town that doesn't feature a performance by Barker?)
And then there's Kilty, who's played King Lear in four previous productions and who delivers a striking, wide-ranging performance. His Lear is amusing and unpredictable and, unlike celebrated interpretations of the role that depict Lear as lucid and wise at the beginning of the story, Kilty's King is a complete lunatic from the git-go. He's quietly deranged in his early scenes, and is shrieking and drooling and devouring scenery by the top of Act Two. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
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The real triumph of this production is Mason's; he presents King Lear as Shakespeare intended it. Where many directors translate Lear as optimistic, it's primarily a play about despair, not redemption. Although both the King and Gloucester gain something positive in the course of the story, both die of broken hearts. In fact, nearly everyone but Albany and Edgar is dead by the final curtain, and it's plain that their remaining days will be miserable and loveless. Mason rightly interprets Lear's tragedy as the result of his pride and willfulness; he doesn't waste any sympathy on the old king or see his plight as something grander, like fate or the tragedy of man.
The program's press release is lousy with quotes about how Mason wanted to do this show because it reflects contemporary concerns like the dissolution of family and the horrors of Alzheimer's disease. But I'm betting he just wanted to put up a play that reminded us he's here and that gave him the opportunity to work with some of his famous friends again. He's brought in B.H. Barry, Broadway's legendary "king of fight choreography," to stage the sword duels, and has overseen some masterful lighting and truly tremendous set pieces. (About halfway through the performance, the entire set creeps slowly offstage and is replaced by another, even grander setting.) Or maybe Mason's seen one too many reformed productions of this play and wanted to take a swing at it himself.
Whatever the reason, Mason appears to be having a ball, and his King Lear--despite some mawkish, mismatched acting--is redeemed by its lead performance and by a massive display of theatrical compensation by its director.
King Lear continues through Saturday, February 21, at the Paul V. Galvin Playhouse in the Nelson Fine Arts Center, 10th Street and Mill in Tempe. For more details, see the Performance listing in Thrills.