Frustration may be the key word in this observer's reaction to the "King Lear" that opened Friday at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Some of it is good, some bad, some silly.
This is nothing new for anyone familiar with the work of those fellow Norwegians, director Stein Winge and designer Timian Alsaker (who did the tenebrous set and lighting and oddly pedestrian costumes). Their collaborations are filled with imagination that runs to excess. This one is not so much script abuse in the massive order of their "Barabbas," but is it a "King Lear?"
Here and there. A dubious decision was to corral yet another fellow Norwegian, Espen Skjonberg, into playing the title role--not only because he has trouble with the language (resulting in some tragic trimming of the role), but also because Skjonberg is so sturdy and resilient that he's the last man who should play Lear.
At Winge's directive, Skjonberg portrays an arrogant, bon vivant Lear, which is acceptable, and a violent one, which is not. He goes around popping guns and knocking over tables to get his way. No wonder he casts aside Cordelia (a playful and savvy Ann Hearn), with whom he has the most fun.
His presence around his daughters' houses with his rowdy companions might try the patience of even nice daughters. But Evelina Fernandez as Goneril and Meg Foster as Regan are not nice--or dimensional. They sniff and sneer and roll their eyes and all but breathe fire. Subtlety is not a hallmark here.
Nor is fidelity to Shakespeare that doesn't reserve the right to embellish. Edgar (the excellent Robert Wightman) makes his first entrance flanked by two drunken, half-naked ladies; Goneril and Regan have kinky libidos that won't quit; the blinding of Gloucester (a tender Stefan Gierasch) becomes an act of sex and violence; anger, from anyone, consists of throwing chairs around. While the storm in Act III might have been designed by Norwegian Edvard Munch.
Lear and friends swirl and stretch and howl under a swooping crepe-like tapestry of indeterminate color that, for a moment, looks as if it came right out of Munch's "Silent Scream." Effective? Not when "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!" emerges like an edict, meticulously inflected for clarity without an ounce of feeling. The whole thing becomes one of those monstrous ideas that must have seemed much better on paper.
Skjonberg's language problem bolts into prominence in these concluding scenes. It's no longer just the minor irritation of hearing "good" come out "gude" and "true" sound like "trewe;" he is so focused on just getting the lines out that Shakespeare's magnificent speeches, keenly fine-tuned to temperament and madness, are given a dry, almost childlike perfunctory treatment by an indestructible king.
Where is the "poor old man, as full of grief as age?" In Lear's dying moments, Skjonberg looks ready to jog around the block.
Curiously--and this should tell you a lot about what's wrong--it's the supporting roles that get the clearest readings. Robert O'Reilly creates a heavy-lidded, languishing Edmund, very snake-in-the-grass. Hearn is a golden Cordelia, a waif with real backbone. In one of his better ideas, Winge has chosen to also have her play the fool, which provides interesting overtones. John Nesci is a wise and forceful Kent and Vito D'Ambrosio a compassionate Albany, a caring mix of weakness and outrage.
What doesn't come together is the heart of the production. We get overwrought context without text--trimmings without a main dish. "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say," in Edgar's closing speech goes for the whole production.
Performances at 514 S. Spring St. run Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2, until Nov. 29. Tickets: $10.50-$25; (213) 627-5599.